Science for what public? Addressing equity in American science museums and science centers


  • Noah Weeth Feinstein,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin
    2. Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin
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  • David Meshoulam

    1. Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin
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  • This study benefitted from the early advice of Doris Ash, who helped guide the initial framing and design, and from the invaluable expertise of Sue Allen, who provided critical feedback on early drafts.


Science museums and science centers exist (in large part) to bring science to the public. But what public do they serve? The challenge of equity is embodied by the gulf that separates a museum's actual public and the more diverse publics that comprise our society. Yet despite growing scholarly interest in museums and science centers, few researchers have explored how these organizations seek to bridge that gulf. Adopting an institutional theory perspective, we argue that equity is a field-wide challenge in informal science education—a challenge that different organizations define and respond to in different ways. We draw on interviews with leaders from fifteen museums and science centers around the United States to examine how equity work reflects emerging norms of practice as well as local influences. Finally, we describe two institutional logics, client logic and cooperative logic, that contain different ideas about the relationship between an organization and its publics. These logics affect both the definition and the practice of equity work. The tension between them evokes a broader tension between dissemination and participation in public engagement with science. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 51: 368–394, 2014


Science museums and science centers have achieved a remarkable new prominence in science education practice, research, and policy. School-museum collaborations proliferate around the United States and around the world (Bevan et al., 2010), while articles on “informal science education” (ISE) appear with increasing frequency in research journals. ISE has even percolated up to the highest levels of policy, appearing regularly in the reports of government agencies dedicated to both science and education (e.g., National Science and Technology Council, 2013; President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2010). In 2009, the National Research Council (NRC) produced what many consider the first comprehensive scholarly review of ISE (Bell, Lewenstein, Shouse, & Feder, 2009). This report both celebrated and provoked broader scholarly interest in the field.

Woven through the NRC report is the idea that science museums and science centers can solve some of the problems that have bedeviled school-based science education for the whole of its history. Building on the emerging evidence, the report's authors argue that museums and science centers may be better at eliciting positive emotional responses to science, better at demonstrating the relevance of science to everyday life, better at embodying the nature of science, and better at positioning science as something that young people can do. They even suggest that informal science education can bring science to a broader audience, helping to address the persistent inequities of science education.

This last idea is wholly compatible with the ideology of science museums and science centers, many of which were founded with the explicit purpose of presenting science to as broad a public as possible (Macdonald, 1997). Reality has rarely lived up to this ideal. Visitor statistics indicate that museums may be poorly positioned to bring science to a diverse audience because their visitors are far less diverse than the general public (Farrell and Medvedeva, 2010). Unless the situation changes, museums and science centers could even worsen the inequities of science education, rather than improving them. By providing enrichment to a less diverse and more privileged audience, they may contribute to a “Matthew Effect” (Merton, 1968; Stanovich, 1986) in science learning, serving those who are already succeeding in school and society.

Science museums and science centers are aware of this challenge (Hood, 2004; Persson, 2000). In 1992, the American Association of Museums published a landmark report entitled Excellence and Equity: Education and the public dimension of museums, appealing to the staff and leaders of museums around the country to expand their audiences and their impact. The authors argued that “Museums must become more inclusive places that welcome diverse audiences, but first they should reflect our society's pluralism in every aspect of their operations and programs” (American Association of Museums [AAM], 1992, p. 5). Although the field-wide debate over equity was well underway when Excellence and Equity was published (e.g., Harvey & Friedberg, 1971), the AAM report (like the NRC report on ISE) brought greater attention to the topic and instilled new urgency in the equity work of museums around the country.

The debate about equity in museums is part of an older and larger discussion about the educational role of museums (e.g., Hooper-Greenhill, 1999). The tension between education and other institutional goals, such as the expansion and preservation of collections, can be traced back a century at least (Dimaggio, 1991). In more recent years, science museums and science centers have enthusiastically embraced education as a primary goal (e.g., Persson, 2000). Yet there is some evidence that other sorts of museums and informal learning organizations have gone farther in their consideration of equity and diversity. In the museology literature on equity and diversity (e.g., Sandell & Nightingale, 2012), science museums and science centers play a smaller role than museums of art, history, and anthropology.

Although science museums and science centers may have been relatively slow to join the discussion about equity, they still have much to teach academic researchers. The explosion of scholarly interest in ISE builds on decades of work in visitor studies and exhibit evaluation, fields in which knowledge is intimately linked to practice and innovations circulate through the “gray literature” of evaluation reports, practitioner journals, and books written by and for informal educators. Although discussions about equity have percolated through these networks for years (e.g., Crowley, 2001; Garibay, 2006) there are still few equity-focused academic studies of learning in science museums and science centers. This is particularly remarkable in light of the focus on equity in other ISE settings, such as afterschool clubs (e.g., Barron, 2004; Calabrese Barton, 2001). Given the persistent divide between ISE research and practice (Falk, Randol, & Dierking, 2012), many researchers may not even be aware of the scope of equity work currently underway in science museums and science centers. Without adequate knowledge of practice, it is difficult for researchers to formulate intelligent questions about equity in ISE, and nearly impossible for them to contribute anything useful to the discussion.

A limited knowledge of practice is not the only thing that stands in the way of more and better research on equity in ISE organizations. Researchers should not be too quick to assume they know what “equity” means to an ISE organization, or what, in the view of ISE organizations and their employees, constitutes equity work. The challenge posed by Excellence and Equity—that museums and science centers should serve a broader public, and shift their operations according to the needs of that public—is widely acknowledged, but it is hardly the only challenge that ISE organizations face. Balancing financial pressures and other mission-related priorities, as well as uniquely local challenges, ISE organizations are likely to interpret and respond to the challenge of equity differently. It would also be easy for an outsider in search of equity work to misinterpret an ISE organization's activities, as many of the things that an organization might do to promote equity (e.g., expanding membership in diverse communities, translating labels into other languages) are things it might do for other reasons as well.

New Institutionalism and the Field-Wide Challenge of Equity

Our approach to studying equity in ISE organizations is grounded in new institutionalism—a body of theory and research that spans multiple scholarly fields. New institutionalism emerged as a response to behaviorist research in the 1960s and 1970s that attributed social outcomes, including the evolution, success, and failure of organizations, to individual action (March & Olsen, 1984). New institutionalism, in all of its forms, is defined by a focus on the role of organizations, but different disciplines assign different degrees of importance to individual agents and the organizations and “institutional fields” in which they are imbedded (Koelble, 1995). For example, economists and some political scientists continue to emphasize individual choice, although they allow that individuals create organizations and institutions that constrain their choices and reorganize their incentive structures. This type of work is often called rational choice institutionalism (March & Olsen, 1984). We draw primarily on sociological institutionalism, a school of thought in which individuals are seen as acting within (and constrained by) organizations, which in turn belong to larger organizational fields (Hall & Taylor, 1996). In this view, a museum professional works within an organization (a science museum) that is itself imbedded in the organizational field of science museums and science centers. At the most basic level, this means that individuals' actions are shaped by the organizations those individuals belong to, which in turn are shaped by their respective fields (Schneiberg & Clemens, 2006). Of course, reality is far more complex. For example, individuals can also influence the shape of the field (Dimaggio, 1991), while organizations exert a powerful influence on other organizations within their fields (Dimaggio & Powell, 1983).

Sociological institutionalism draws our attention to patterns that span organizations and characterize an entire field. Some of the most famous and influential work in this area is devoted to explaining why organizations seem to become more similar over time (Dimaggio & Powell, 1983)—how, for instance, science museums might start with very different goals, practices, and organizational structures, and gradually begin to look and act more alike. More recently, sociologists have focused on tension and change within institutional fields. In particular, they have examined cases in which two or more frameworks appear to guide how organizations in a particular field act (e.g., Lounsbury, 2007). These frameworks, each of which can be thought of as a package of values, ideas, and strategies, are called institutional logics (Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury, 2012). Competing institutional logics lead organizations within a field to act in different ways, even though their goals seem, or the surface, to be quite similar. When competing logics are found within a particular organization, they cause conflict and disagreement (ibid.). Over time, the shift in prevalence of different institutional logics can reveal change in a field. For example, Kleinman and Vallas (2001; see also Vallas & Kleinman, 2008) show how the logic of biological research has gradually shifted to incorporate patenting and intellectual property practices common in private biotechnology companies—a shift that affects both everyday scientific work and the larger incentive system within which it takes place.

Working within the framework of sociological institutionalism, we identify equity as field-wide concern—not a particular institutional logic, but a loosely constructed problem that could (potentially) be defined and pursued in different ways, according to different institutional logics. In support of this perspective, Excellence and Equity defines equity in terms of the gulf between the actual and potential museum audience, between the subset of society that museums currently serve and “a broader spectrum of our diverse society” (AAM, 1992, p. 9; see also Farrell & Medvedeva, 2010). More recent work on museums and equity goes beyond inclusiveness and demographic notions of diversity to address power differentials, social justice, and community empowerment (Golding, 2009; Sandell & Nightingale, 2012). These broad, multi-issue framings all construct equity as a problem or challenge, leaving room for particular organizations to respond in different ways.

Based on earlier research, we expect that ISE organizations will be influenced by emerging field-wide norms about what equity means and how it should be addressed (e.g., Dimaggio, 1991), and also that they will also react to their unique social, historical, and geographic context (Kraatz & Zajac, 1996; Ogawa, Crain, Loomis, & Ball, 2008). It is far less clear what the field-wide norms of equity work might be, and how particular ISE organizations will balance the norms of their field with the demands of their local context. One possibility is that ISE organizations rely on an institutional logic—or more than one—to help them balance these demands and guide their approach to the challenge of equity.

To provide a foundation for more and better research on equity in ISE, we chose to examine how a particular set of ISE organizations responded to the field-wide challenge of equity. Three specific questions grew out of our theoretical framework:

  • How are ISE organizations similar or different in the ways they conceptualize equity and the practices they identify as equity work, and what practices emerge as field-wide norms?
  • How do concepts of equity and strategies for equity work reflect the local circumstances of ISE organizations?
  • Looking across ISE organizations, is it possible to discern different patterns of equity work and rationales for that work—what might be considered different logics for approaching the challenge of equity?

Because we wanted to discover how particular organizations conceptualized equity, we did not offer a definition of equity, or advance a particular idea of what equity work involved. We did, however, provide a broad and open-ended frame that corresponds to the challenge of equity, as defined for the field in documents such as Excellence and Equity. When introducing our study, we noted first that we were interested in “the uneven distribution of opportunity, resources, and power, and the way that this uneven distribution affects learning and access to learning”; we then invited participants to tell us about how their organizations addressed “issues of culture, race, gender, disability, language, poverty, and so forth.” Within this deliberately broad frame, we allowed participants to define equity in terms that made sense to them and their organizations.

Above and beyond these research questions, our study was guided by a desire to intervene in our own field of science education. By presenting the perspectives and voices of ISE practitioners in this scholarly venue, we hope to bridge the research-practice divide and provoke a richer scholarly discussion about educational equity in science museums and science centers. Because we emphasize the perspectives of ISE professionals in our findings, we expect that other ISE professionals will find some of these findings familiar. Yet we hope and expect that they will be both useful and new for our primary audience, science education researchers.

Readers seeking a detailed account of educational strategies will be disappointed. As is often the case, the most interesting practices are also the most unusual, and therefore the most identifiable. To protect the confidentiality of our sources in a relatively small professional field, we have been forced to avoid specific programmatic details. In this respect, our research is likely to raise more questions than it answers. We do our best to highlight unanswered questions in the conclusion, in hopes that this will encourage other researchers to fill in the blanks.


Research Design

We used a comparative case study design with semi-structured, qualitative interview methods to explore the relationship between field-wide norms, local conditions, and organizational logics. Qualitative methods are generally viewed as appropriate for exploring nuances of meaning and local context (Miles & Huberman, 1994). In particular, the semi-structured format gave us the flexibility to adopt each organization's preferred language for equity, and to focus on the specific strategies that our participants identified as most important. The need for confidentiality prevents us from reporting on direct comparison between cases, but the construction of cases from multiple interviews was still a critical part of our analysis, and enabled us to compare particular programs (e.g., youth docent programs) across different organizations and groups of organizations.

Our sampling strategy was guided by our theoretical framework, which envisions organizations as interacting entities embedded in an institutional field, and by an awareness that organizations with a greater commitment to equity work (variously defined) would provide a clearer, higher resolution picture of the relationship between field-wide norms, local conditions, and organizational logics. To identify our initial sample, we asked equity and diversity personnel at a field-spanning professional organization, the Association for Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), to provide a list of organizations that they perceived as leading the field in equity work. We then proceeded through snowball sampling—asking each participant to name other ISE organizations that conducted exemplary equity work. At no point did we attempt to levy our own judgments about which organizations were sufficiently invested in equity, relying instead on the judgments of ISE practitioners.

To ensure diversity within this sample, we purposefully selected organizations from among those recommended to us to achieve a broad geographic distribution and to include both large and small, urban and (relatively) rural, newer and more established organizations. Resource constraints forced us to limit our sample to ISE organizations in the United States. We stopped adding new participants when we had obtained a broad geographic distribution and when study participants began to refer us back to people we had already interviewed. The final sample included 15 organizations: 11 self-identified science museums or science centers, 2 children's museums, 1 aquarium, and 1 zoo. Four organizations were in the American West (including three on the coast and one in the Southwest), three in the Midwest, three in the Southeast, and five in the Northeast. Although the population of the host city is an imperfect proxy for the local audience of an ISE organization, four were from cities with populations larger than 1 million, three from cities between 500,000 and 1 million, five from cities between 100,000 and 500,000, and three from cities with populations less than 100,000.

Early on, we had to make an important decision regarding what we would count as an ISE organization. The choice of ASTC as our starting point reflects our focus on science museums and science centers. Even within this sample, however, the boundaries of the category “ISE organization” were not always obvious. Our sampling procedure rapidly identified two children's museums that were known for the quality of their equity work. Because both museums had a strong and consistent thematic emphasis on science and technology (visible in publicly available sources such as websites and mission statements), we included them. We also deliberately included one aquarium and one zoo that arose in snowball sampling, although we suspected at the outset that these institutions would be difficult to compare to the others owing to the different historical origins of zoos and aquaria and their different professional networks.

Our interview strategy was intended to offer an overview of each organization's ideas and practices related to equity, focusing on high-profile programs and characteristic initiatives rather than eliciting a comprehensive account of relevant activities. Because previous research emphasized the role of both administrative and programmatic leaders in equity work (Nightingale & Mahal, 2012) we interviewed one of each at every organization. Typically, the snowball sampling process led to the organization, with no specific contact identified, or to a particular programmatic leader. In the former case, we contacted the organization's administrative leader first, and, during that interview, asked her or him to identify the programmatic leader with the most relevant expertise and authority. In the latter case, we contacted the specific programmatic leader first, then the administrative leader. In two cases, when the perspective of the programmatic leader was narrowly focused on a subset of the organization's work, we sought out and interviewed a second programmatic leader as well. The administrative leader typically held the title of executive director; when the executive director was unavailable, we interviewed the highest-ranking executive authority we could identify. There was more variation in the titles of the programmatic leaders, reflecting the varied organizational structures of ISE organizations; the most common titles were director of education and director of public programs.

Each of the 32 interview participants (15 administrative leaders and 17 programmatic leaders) completed an hour-long semi-structured telephone interview. The interview began with an oral consent procedure then proceeded through three sections focusing on (1) the organization's conceptualization of equity, (2) organizational history and context, and (3) equity-related programming and practice. As with all semi-structured interviews, we probed for additional information and followed up on unusual or case-specific equity-related information. The full interview instrument is included the Supporting Information.

All interviews were conducted between January and August of 2009. All but one of the interviews were digitally recorded and professionally transcribed for analysis. The remaining interview, which was not recorded due to technical problems, was reconstructed from detailed notes taken during the conversation. The age of the data is a minor concern in judging the validity of the results, as some programs have undoubtedly changed. Yet although particular organizations may evolve more quickly, four years is a short time in the evolution of the ISE field. The cutting edge of the field may have moved, and norms may have become better established; if so, it is likely that patterns identified in our sample will have since percolated out, and the results and conclusions reported here will have greater relevance across ISE organizations. To balance the likelihood of change within particular organizations, however, we are exceedingly cautious about the way we report numbers in our data (see below).


We analyzed our data using open coding and the constant comparative method in a manner reminiscent of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 2009) but constrained by our institutionalist theoretical framework. Our first pass through the data was wholly inductive: both authors coded an initial subset of six interviews for emergent themes. We then compared the themes that emerged for each of us, and, through iterative discussion, chose a set of central themes to apply to the entire data set. When choosing central themes, we used our theoretical framework to group the emergent themes together into categories including (but not limited to) “field-wide norms of equity practice” and “local influences on equity practice.” We also chose to include some emergent themes, such as “concepts of equity” and “defining the community,” that did not fit neatly into categories suggested by our framework, but which we believed would help us uncover underlying institutional logics. Then, as we coded the entire data set for the central themes, we made detailed memos focusing on critical passages in the data and possible intersections between the central themes. We discussed instances of disagreement in order to clarify and refine our coding system, but did not insist on a resolution of each discrepancy. Finally, we used the coded transcripts and thematic memos to generate case summaries for each ISE organization. This coding process fed into three lines of analysis corresponding to our research questions. The first, which examines how ISE organizations overtly conceptualized and enacted equity work, relies primarily on the case summaries. The second and third, which focus on how equity concepts and practices were shaped by local context, and what underlying institutional logics influenced equity work, rely primarily on the memos that were generated during coding. We discuss each line of analysis in a separate results section.

Some of the terms used in the following sections require explanation. First, although the organizations in the sample included self-defined museums, science centers, children's museums, one aquarium and one zoo, we use the phrases “the physical museum” or “the museum building” to refer to the structure that houses exhibits open to the public. We refer to the exhibit space inside this building as “the museum floor” or simply “the floor,” reflecting the language of ISE practitioners. We use the word “visitor” to refer to people who come to the museum floor and the word “audience” to apply to the broader group of people affected by an organization's programs. Finally, we use the word “exhibit” to refer to a single display or interactive object that visitors encounter on the floor and the word “exhibition” to refer to a thematic collection of exhibits.

We have also tried to indicate how often particular findings arose while, at the same time, avoiding false precision. Our interview instrument was not designed to elicit a comprehensive account of each organization's programs, and although we spoke with multiple participants from each organization and repeatedly prompted for additional details, it is possible that our participants did not mention a particular sort of program. Also, because the data is several years old, some of the organizations in our sample have undoubtedly added or eliminated relevant programs. We therefore deliberately avoid reporting the exact number of organizations that had a particular type of program or reported a particular sort of situation. To give our readers a sense of how rare or common particular programs and situations were, we signal numerical ranges throughout the results sections using the following shorthand: “several” indicates 2–5 organizations, “many” indicates 6–10, and “most” indicates 11–14. We do indicate the very rare instances when a program was unique in our sample, or when a program was reported by all organizations.

Results Part 1: Field-Wide Norms and Variation

Our theoretical framework predicts that ISE organizations, as members of an institutional field, will be guided by norms of meaning and practice. The extent to which this is true for equity work depends on a shared awareness, and a shared embrace, of this field-wide challenge. In this first results section, we explore how the ISE organizations in our sample resembled and differed from each other in the ways they defined and practiced equity work. Our goals are, first, to identify field-wide norms, and second, to surface differences in thought and action that may reveal the influence of local factors or competing institutional logics (topics that we take up in the second and third results sections, respectively). Although we are not concerned with the effectiveness of particular equity programs, we do discuss how our participants perceived their effectiveness when their perceptions offer clues about implicit values and priorities.

Framing the Challenge of Equity—Language, Topics, and Program Areas

Though we use the word “equity” and the phrase “equity work” as generic terms in this paper, there was no consensus among our participants concerning how to talk about the challenge of equity. The three terms that appeared most frequently were access, diversity, and equity. Other terms (e.g., inclusiveness, voice, and rights) also arose sporadically, but every organization in the study used at least one of the three most common terms. A few organizations strongly preferred one term: in one case “equity” was formally enshrined as a guiding principle for the entire organization, while in another case both participants reported that “access and accessibility” were deeply, though informally, connected to the organization's mission. At some organizations, different terms were used to refer to different programs. For example, in one organization the word “equity” was used when describing programs focused on social class, while the word “access” was used to describe programs focused on language and culture. Across all organizations, the word “diversity” was always connected to concerns about race and social class, but the connotations of other words shifted from organization to organization.

Under various headings, the ISE organizations in our sample focused on different equity-related themes. Race, culture, and social class formed a core of prominent themes that were mentioned in connection with more than one program or initiative in most ISE organizations in our sample. Gender and disability occupied a second tier of prominence: each was mentioned in connection with at least one current or historical program in most cases, and in connection with more than one initiative at several organizations. Other themes were mentioned only rarely and in peripheral ways. Several organizations mentioned sexual orientation or gender diversity, but these themes were not the focus of any specific programming. Neurodiversity—a focus on visitors with cognitive and developmental differences—was mentioned in only one case.

Among the ISE organizations in our sample, no single program area was the consistent home of “equity work.” Most people think of museums and science centers as physical spaces full of exhibits that help children and adults learn about science, yet contemporary ISE organizations are far more than exhibit halls. Some reach their largest audience through internet programming. Others develop nationally respected curricula or provide cutting-edge professional development. Still others operate independent, fully functional schools. We observed a similar breadth and diversity in the activities that our participants associated with equity. One large organization pursued equity primarily through exhibit development, using an elaborate system of prototyping to ensure that each exhibit on the floor was accessible to visitors of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities. Another organization emphasized cultural competence in labeling and text, paying careful attention to dialect and idioms in exhibit labels and explanatory texts. For a third organization, the core aspect of equity work was a long-term apprenticeship program that provided youth from high-poverty communities with science enrichment, college preparation, and basic work skills. In these three cases, and most others, participants paid more attention to (and expressed more pride in) a subset of the programs that they identified as equity work. Despite this diversity, some norms emerged—broad areas of operations or programming in which most organizations identified some focus on equity. In the following subsections, we explore how equity work was conceptualized and carried out in three such areas.

Addressing Equity Through Staffing and Human Resources

Most of the organizations in our sample considered the hiring and training of staff to be an aspect of their equity work. This was typically justified as a way of improving the ISE experience for diverse visitors. As one organizational leader from the West noted, “when your community attends or comes to your museum, it's nice to see someone who looks like them in all aspects of the organization.” Several participants, though, contended that staff diversity was a matter of organizational survival, such as the administrative leader from the Southeast who argued that

the market itself is so ethnically and socio-economically diverse that if were we not reflective of our community both in terms of the board and our staff, in terms of our programming, our language capacity, the list goes on and on, we would have folded up a long time ago because we would no longer be relevant.

These rationales, though related, convey different degrees of urgency: whereas improving the visitor experience is an aspirational goal, maintaining relevance is a core function.

Organizational efforts to hire a diverse staff varied in aggressiveness and focus. At the passive end, staff diversity was delegated to the human resources department at several organizations, which would (in the words on one programmatic leader) “let me know when there's someone who would help us to reach our diversity goals.” The more proactive organizations used recruitment strategies that either drew upon the cultural and racial diversity of the local community or targeted a particular equity-related role of potential employees. Several organizations adopted the local approach, echoing the sentiment of an administrative leader in the West who pointed out that “if we are recruiting in our local community we are recruiting a diverse workforce.” Several other organizations followed the role-centric approach by requiring new staff in visitor-serving positions to be bilingual; one reported near-universal Spanish–English bilingualism among the floor staff as a result.

Several institutions also sought to promote systematically from within, creating opportunities to facilitate the advancement of talented and diverse staff members. For example, an administrative leader in the West described her organization's commitment to a talented minority staff member, saying “we've created a career path for her by which she's not just working in the business office, but actually increasingly contributing to the overall organization.” Internal promotion strategies achieved notable success at one organization in the Northeast, where they were paired with frequent institutionalized reflection and what the administrative leader called a “low politeness, high candor environment.” Elsewhere, both programmatic and administrative leaders reported more mixed results. In the words of a programmatic leader at a different Northeastern organization, “There are other minorities that have been hired in the museum on one level and they have moved up, but it's been a struggle.” Several organizations bemoaned high attrition among minority staff. An administrative leader from the Southeast confided that

we've had a hell of a time hanging onto really incredible African-American staffers. We can hire them, they can be here for a year to a year and a half and boom, they are out of here with double the salary… we're a great farm team for everybody else in [the city] and outside of this market; and I'm proud of that, but boy, I'm getting tired of it.

Most participants reported that attaining and maintaining staff diversity was a longstanding goal, and several were able to share compelling accounts of change within their organizations. For example, a programmatic leader from the Northeast described the spread of diversity throughout the organization, noting

When I first came to the museum, there were several departments that were completely white, and for years it was as if no one saw it, you know. But now, that has changed. The departments are more diverse than they used to be, you know, like development, where you're writing grants and marketing. Those kinds of departments used to be totally white, but they are now more diverse.

Yet despite such successes, targeted recruitment typically failed to produce diversity throughout the organization. In particular, participants from several organizations reported an inverse relationship between diversity and seniority, with non-white staff serving in lower-ranked and lower-paying positions. As one administrative leader from the Southeast observed, “our senior leadership is more white than it should be, and you know our front line leadership and staff is very diverse.” For some participants, this boiled down to a lack of qualified candidates. In the words of one administrative leader, “if I can find a minority female mathematician with management and leadership skills, she should be running this institution!”

At the extremes, the contrast between youth interns and members of the board illustrates the inverse relationship between diversity and seniority. In the words of one administrative leader in the West, “one reason our [diversity] numbers look so good is that we've done such a great job bringing in young people through [our youth docent program] and they tend to be much, much more representative.” At the opposite end of the hierarchy, the board of directors was typically the least diverse group of people affiliated with the institution. The traditional role of board members as financial contributors was a constraint on recruitment, so that even ethnically diverse boards were not economically representative of their communities. As a second administrative leader from the West noted, “we kind of look more at ethnic and racial diversity than we do at economic diversity on our board, because the purpose of our board is to raise money.” Although neither board members nor interns are staff in the strictest sense, many participants reported that the general trend of greater diversity in lower-ranked positions held true among full-time staff. One administrative leader hoped that his organization would eventually reach a critical mass, and things would get easier:

In a perfect world I don't believe we would be in a situation where we would have to be thinking about it at this conscious level…. There would be more people of color on staff—more than just ten. Those people would be in leadership positions.

In the meantime, he said, “the things that we fail with are constant.”

Addressing Equity on the Museum Floor

The museum floor is what most people imagine when they think about ISE organizations, and research conducted on the museum floor has done much to inspire the current interest in informal science education (Bell et al., 2009; Hein, 1998). Because both the scholarly literature and the practitioner literature offer more examples of equity work on exhibits and floor programs (e.g., Crowley, Callanan, Tenenbaum, & Allen, 2001; Crowley, 2001; Ash, 2003), our findings in this section (more than other sections) should be treated as a sample of possibilities rather than a comprehensive account.

When discussing the museum floor, our participants split the overarching challenge of equity into two pieces: first, visitors from local minority groups did not come1 to the museum, and second, visitors from various minority groups who came to the museum did not find the exhibits and floor programs to be accessible, appealing, and relevant. These challenges were connected in the minds of our participants, many of whom felt that developing new exhibits would in itself attract a different visitor population. Still, they led to two distinct types of equity work, one focused on bringing diverse visitors to the museum floor, and the other focused on adapting the floor to meet their needs.

Attracting diverse visitors

Our participants were acutely aware of the gap that separated their visitor demographics from those of the surrounding community. As the administrative leader of a large Midwestern organization put it, “even though… the greater metro area is quite diverse… the audience coming to the museum is not.” The juxtaposition of this deficit—a deficit in diverse visitors—with a more familiar deficit of science knowledge was common enough that that we came to call it the dual deficit. In the words of one participant, “who's included in the [science] learning because of their physical presence, and who's not?” For many organizations, increasing the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of the visitor population was the single most important aspect of equity work—the principle from which other operational and programming decisions should flow. According to one administrative leader in the Northeast,

When we say introducing science and engineering technology to the broadest possible audience, that's what it means. It means folks who might not otherwise come to the museum, couldn't otherwise come to the museum; there might be barriers to them visiting the museum. So, for us to meet our mission, we need to cast our net as wide as possible.

Participants repeatedly invoked this language of barriers in explaining and justifying the strategies they used to bring more diverse visitors to the museum floor. The barriers they described were logistical, financial, and (most emphatically) cultural, but they added up to one thing: in the words of a frustrated administrative leader “it's actually hard to get those kids in here!”

Logistical barriers consisted largely of distance and available transportation. Most of the organizations in our sample struggled with inadequate public transit. The administrative leader of an urban organization reported that her city's poor public transportation “discriminates against the young and the poor… people kind of tend to stay in their neighborhood with their culture, their food, their religion, their clothing, whatever.” The problem was similarly acute for a small, rural organization where the programmatic leader noted that “there is some public transportation that goes to the outlying communities, but you have to catch the bus at 7:30 in the morning and the only bus that comes back is at 7:30 in the evening.” Attempts to subsidize transportation at several organizations proved impractical. One programmatic leader reported that the “$55,000 in our budget every year to have organizations rent buses and then we reimburse them” was little more than “a drop in the bucket.”

To overcome financial barriers, every organization in our sample provided some form of free admission, either through free nights, free days, free passes, free or reduced membership, or, in the case of several organizations, free general admission at all times. In many cases, the task of disseminating free passes and free or reduced-price memberships was delegated to collaborating social service organizations. An administrator in the Northeast justified this arrangement by observing that “we do not have the expertise or the resources or the staff hours to try to figure out who are the audiences that we should be targeting or that need that kind of help.” From another administrative leader's perspective, distributing (nearly) free memberships through community partners saved underrepresented communities from the stigma of applying for special benefits or using special passes at the entrance, as “they don't have to come into our museum with their proof of poverty.”

Despite the considerable energy that went into addressing logistical and financial barriers, participants from most organizations, including small and large, urban and rural organizations felt that culture was the greatest barrier to museum attendance. In this context, “culture” referred not to a specific cultural group, but to a pervasive discomfort or lack of familiarity with ISE organizations—the perception that “people like me don't go to science museums and science centers.” This perception was attributed to an extraordinarily diverse range of groups. Thus, the administrative leader of a small, rural ISE organization blamed the absence of low-SES white visitors on “a level of discomfort… about going to a place called a museum,” whereas the programmatic leader of a large, urban ISE organization conjectured that ethnic minority groups “don't take advantage of museums… because they don't feel like they belong there.”

In response to this barrier, many ISE organizations in our sample made changes to their staff. Several organizations designated staff members to act as community liaisons, building relationships with community groups and helping the organizations examine “the motivating factors for different communities that might get them here.” Several other organizations created advisory boards with members drawn from the surrounding communities to provide feedback on their operations. As the programmatic leader of an organization in the West recounted,

we assembled an advisory committee board [with] representatives of the different audiences…. And, really, that gave us a whole other understanding of needs and current issues, and also, how to start kind of working on some of the barriers.

Several other organizations developed new exhibitions, or rented traveling exhibitions, with specific constituencies in mind. In the words of one administrative leader, new exhibitions provided a chance to show diverse communities that his organization dealt with themes and content “that they can identify with, something that they want to come and see.” When creating an entire exhibition was out of reach, many organizations in our sample held special events to attract a broader range of visitors. The programmatic leader of an organization in the Southeast invoked the language of comfort again when describing her organization's “community days”:

the theory behind that was if we go, kind of, grab a community… and they descend on us in their community that they're already familiar with and totally comfortable in, then they've got what they need to come in for a first visit. Then all of a sudden when the come in here they see, “Oh my gosh, here's everybody… I'm not the only blah, blah person here… This is very much an environment that I feel comfortable in.”

Several participants were skeptical about the long-term impact of special events and exhibitions on the long-term relationship between an organization and its community. Following one special exhibition, a programmatic leader reflected that “it was very clear the audience was very different… I think the exhibition is gone and so has the audience.” Another participant identified a need “to push back out into the community and be more present there, not to expect that they would just come and visit us but we would be out there as well.” In his and others' eyes, the long-term impact of a particular event depended on the organization's ability to capitalize on new community connections through outreach.

Embedded in participants' comments about financial and cultural barriers was a third sort of deficit, complementing the two deficits mentioned above. This was a deficit of personal or material resources attributed to community members who did not choose to visit an ISE organization. Financial barriers were often discussed in terms of “poverty” or “needing help,” which are characteristics of the absent visitors, rather than entrance fees or the need to charge admission, which are characteristics of the ISE organization. Similarly, cultural barriers were often defined in terms of “discomfort” or a lack of “belonging,” rather than an unwelcoming or uncomfortable ISE environment.

Adapting the museum floor

Although our participants did not explicitly refer to the museum floor as uncomfortable or unwelcoming, most did describe many efforts to improve what they offered to diverse visitors. This area of equity work, perhaps more than any other, revealed differences in the groups targeted by ISE organizations. One organization had an elaborate and thorough process for addressing the needs and interests of disabled people, while another had a reputation for excellence in multi-lingual programming. Several organizations designed programs to appeal to girls, particularly girls from underrepresented minority groups, while several others focused on issues related to the different needs of young and old. Many participants were aware of particular audiences that their institutions were not addressing in their exhibits and floor programs. For example, the programmatic leader of an organization with a strong focus on disability noted her organization's relative lack of expertise with language, observing that “our only bilingual tour that we've ever created here at the museum was a virtual ASL [American Sign Language] tour of our exhibitions.”

Across different types of programs and different target audiences, the single most common strategy for equity work on the museum floor was involving community members in the development of ISE exhibits and programs. Participants framed these community involvement efforts in two distinct but overlapping ways. Some described community members as co-authors in the development process. For example, an administrative leader from the West argued that “if we're going to create new materials we should be creating them with all of our audiences.” These organizations often established community advisory boards to help them. In several cases, longstanding advisory boards facilitated a steady back-and-forth exchange of information and priorities between the ISE organization and its community. The administrative leader of one organization described how board meetings would “alternate between having a community advisory board members talk about what they're trying to accomplish and having us chime in with how we might be able to support that, and then kind of vice versa.” Another ISE organization assigned staff members to be “relationship managers” who took responsibility for ensuring that particular community perspectives were represented in ongoing activities, regardless of whether that community or organization was the explicit focus of programming. The second way that participants described community members was as sources of important feedback. For example, a programmatic leader from the Northeast described the goals of formative and summative evaluation as “trying to get feedback from [a broad range of communities] on what we could do to make programs that would attract them to come.” These two frames differ in the degree of agency they implicitly assign to community members in shaping the overall direction of exhibits and programs. Although some participants used both frames, the feedback frame was considerably more common.

Community involvement mechanisms ranged from focus groups to permanent advisory boards. Many ISE organizations integrated equity work into the exhibit prototyping process by inviting diverse groups of visitors to use and comment on exhibits at various stages of development. In several cases, these efforts were limited by an absence of diverse visitors, as with one Western organization whose programmatic leader struggled to coordinate exhibit prototyping with free days and other events that pulled in a more diverse population. In other cases, ISE staff aggressively recruited different demographic groups, as was the case at a Southeastern organization whose programmatic leader would “pull people out of our partners from community-based organizations as well as university and school settings.”

One emerging problem for floor-based equity work, mentioned by participants from many organizations, was the difficulty of balancing the divergent needs and preferences of different groups of visitors. Thus, one programmatic leader in the Northeast described how her colleagues used prototyping to meet the many demands within a single family group, so that

if there is something for young people that is going to engage them for a long period of time, that there is comfortable seating for adults, or their caregivers, or grandparents, and something that would be intellectually interesting to those adults.

Although several organizations tried to ensure that each exhibit could serve as many types of visitors as possible, other ISE organizations in our sample responded to visitors' different needs by attempting to provide an adequately diverse menu of options. For these organizations, community involvement wasn't intended to optimize each separate element but rather to adjust the overall ISE environment so that (in the words of one programmatic director) “you've got a very wide range of different sorts of stuff that appeals to different people at different times.” One administrative leader argued that this approach dissolved the boundary between normal work and equity work. At her organization, she said “diversity is mainstream, so we don't do these programs which are sort of labeled, this is our outreach to such and such community… the regular experience is for our diverse community.”

The languages used in exhibit labels offer another vivid example of the ongoing struggle to meet the needs of a diverse audience on the museum floor. Our participants described a set of equity-related challenges and approaches that would not be immediately obvious to those working outside the field. Rather than captioning all English videos with Spanish, an organization in the Southeast sought to eliminate the appearance of “primary” and “secondary” languages by producing some of its video materials in English with Spanish captions and some in Spanish with English captions. An organization in the West approached bilingual materials as a challenge that went beyond translation, not “developing the exhibit and then translating into Spanish, but actually thinking about an English-speaking/Spanish-speaking bilingual audience as the audience for the exhibit,” and imagining how that might change the design from the very early stages. And several organizations brought up the very different challenge of serving visitor groups with different language abilities in live programming—a challenge that none of them claimed to have solved in an entirely satisfactory manner.

Addressing Equity by “Taking Science to the People”

At every organization in our sample, participants identified projects that took place outside of the physical museum as a key component of their equity work. Some of these efforts were intended primarily to bring participants to the museum floor, but others were viewed as independent initiatives with value beyond their ability to change the visitor demographic. The most common rationale for these projects, usually grouped together under the label “outreach work,” was that some groups of visitors could not or would not come to the museum floor. In the words of one administrative leader,

for a long time, institutions like mine tried to think of clever ways to bring people to our institution and bring people to our programs, and we've now not completely abandoned that, but instead of bringing people to the science, we're taking science to the people.

Three versions of “taking science to the people” were reported by participants in our sample. Each entailed a slightly different view of what “taking science to the people” involved.

One strategy, which we called the pop-up program, attempted to replicate the ISE organization's characteristic learning experiences outside of the physical museum. The administrative leader of a Northeastern organization described a typical pop-up event as a sort of traveling science road show, in which “we go to a rural school with twelve different activities [and] set up a bunch of tables.” Pop-up programs were typically aimed at children and involved a small number of staff who brought exhibits, activities, and demonstrations to venues such as schools, community centers, street fairs, and YMCAs. Often, these visits were isolated events scheduled to coincide with particular lessons or community celebrations. As a programmatic leader in the West put it, “we're in once, and that might be it.” For several organizations, however, pop-up programs grew into sustained relationships. For example, one organization in a relatively rural area focused their pop-up program visits on a small number of schools that, though relatively close, were in “almost a different world from the very educated world of the immediate area, and those kids are not necessarily looking at being college bound and whatnot.”

Pop-up programs ranged in scale from one-person, one-van programs where “the only thing that the person in the outreach position doesn't do is… book the program” to state-wide operations that were able to “meet one in four students within [the organization's state]… in their classroom.” Regardless of scale, these programs were typically perceived as successful on one key metric: reaching a population that was more demographically diverse than the core visitor base. In the words of one programmatic leader, her organization's free pop-up program “had fantastic returns. We saw big differences between who was served… compared to the rest of the museum.”

The second strategy, which we called the family workshop, also used portable exhibits and staff-mediated demonstrations, but rather than bringing a small dose of the ISE experience beyond the organization's walls, it aimed to change the ability and inclination of a particular group to conduct science learning activities in a wider range of daily life contexts. For example, one organization in the Southeast partnered with local elementary schools on math- and science-themed programs intended to “help prepare parents so that they have tangible ways that they can extend learning at home in a hands-on way, outside of school.” An organization in the Northeast applied a similar strategy in their science ambassador program, training individuals from community-based organizations so that “they could go back into their communities and deliver these workshops within their own community… this way, they would be seen by their neighbors as science experts.” Family workshops were held at regular intervals in venues as diverse as libraries, tribal lands, and public housing projects. They sometimes led to sustained partnerships with their host venues, as when an organization in the West developed science kits designed for distribution through public libraries that were integrated with popular children's books. In that case, and several others, the new program was actually suggested by the partnering librarians, with the administrative leader noting that “The librarians loved [our earlier outreach] and they said, ‘Do you have a version of this that parents could check out and take home?’ Well no, so we just got a grant.”

Both family workshops and pop-up programs sometimes led to sustained partnerships, but they also benefitted from existing partnerships—the third equity-related strategy for “taking science to the people.” Most of the ISE organizations in our sample had longstanding partnerships with public schools2 or school districts. Many also conducted regular programs through public libraries, community-based non-profit organizations and government-affiliated organizations such as low-income housing developments. The partnership network of one small ISE organization in the Northeast included “a lot of child-family centers, Head Start programs, a number of United Way agencies… a visiting nurse association… There's about 130 agencies that we actually have formal connections with, that we deal with all the time.” A large organization in the Southeast reported “active partnerships with 540 social service agencies,” including “homeless shelters, faith-based agencies… YMCAs if they are in a low-income area.”

A subset of these partnerships were what we called capacity-building partnerships, which according to our participants were intended to improve the capacity of partner organization to provide science learning opportunities to diverse audiences. Capacity-building partnerships involved extensive staff trainings and the development of educational materials, with the long-term goal of the ISE organization withdrawing while the partner organization continued to provide science learning experiences on its own terms. Describing his organization's position in one such partnership, an administrative leader said “we will help you do it, we will be here with you as long as you want, but you know, this is really kind of your program, not our program.” Another administrative leader called partnerships “a more powerful model because then it doesn't always limit you by what resources you have. They're really tying in what you have with what people are trying to do for themselves or their communities already.”

As we suggested above, the key difference between these three equity work strategies is the way “taking science to the people” is enacted. In pop-up programs, ISE organizations are the providers of science learning experiences, which are discrete and specialized interactions that bear little resemblance to everyday activities. In family workshops, the science learning experiences are still shaped by the ISE organization, but parents and community members are empowered to deliver them. In capacity-building partnerships, taking science to the people means enabling partner organizations to provide science learning experiences that are defined by and integrated into their own goals.

Results Part 2: Local Influence

Our theoretical framework predicts that local influences will shape how organizations respond to the field-wide challenge of equity. Interviews quickly revealed that there were two sorts of “local” that each played a discernible role: the demographic, geographic, and political context in which the organization was imbedded and the unique historical context of the organization itself. In this section, we consider how each sort of local influence affected the conceptualization of equity and the practice of equity work.

Demographic, Geographic and Political Context

Many participants described how the focus of their equity work was shaped by evidence of need from a particular demographic group. This evidence of need was sometimes anecdotal, as when an administrative leader walked through the galleries and realized that “there weren't many African Americans coming here.” Often, however, it was the ability to collect data that catalyzed a response. One administrative leader from the Southeast recalled the almost accidental discovery of high demand for Spanish-language materials:

we had a section of one of our exhibits where you can listen to something in English or listen to something in Spanish, and it was the type of mechanism where we could basically record hits, and we found out… It was like 70% of the hits were in Spanish… a significant enough difference for us, in our minds, that we saw that, “Well this is a limited offering in Spanish, but look how much people took us up on it.”

Organizations that collected data did not necessarily collect data on all demographic axes, though. The frequency and intensity of data collection reflected an organization's particular equity-related interests. Thus, two organizations that both collected a lot of data on their visitors knew very different amounts about the linguistic profile of their surrounding communities. At one extreme, a programmatic leader in the Northeast admitted that “we don't even know what the second most often spoken language would be for our institution.” At the other extreme, a programmatic leader in the Southeast could describe his organization's approach to dialect in detail. “Hispanic's not any one thing,” he observed, and “if you look at the African American population, it's African American and it's Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Caribbean is Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica… they're all different.” At this organization, translating labels into Spanish required attention to cultural nuances, adjusting idioms that only made sense to speakers of Caribbean Spanish or humor that relied on Mexican cultural knowledge.

Geography—the organization's location within the United States, as well as its location relative to other natural features and population centers—affected how particular equity-related projects were prioritized and implemented in several ways. Every organization located in a relatively rural area prioritized outreach activities that participants described as necessary for reaching their far-flung and economically constrained audience base. Yet even in dense urban centers, well-served by public transit, an organization's location relative to roads, bus lines, or subway stops influenced who walked in the door. One organization in our sample was actively considering moving to a new building and another had recently completed a move; the administrative leaders of both organizations reported that proximity to public transit and other major attractions influenced this critical decision. At times, geographic and demographic factors intersected to produce more subtle challenges. For example, the leader of a large Midwestern institution praised its location at “the demographic epicenter… smack dab in the middle” of the city, but also observed that affluent visitors were reluctant to venture into the poorer neighborhood where the institution was housed. And for an organization in the West, the proximity of the U.S.-Mexico border and the political furor surrounding immigration made “immigrant status” an important, but delicate, concern in outreach projects that served Spanish-speaking families.

Immigration is an example of a very visible, nationally salient political issue affecting equity work, but most of the political issues that affected the ISE organizations in our sample were less controversial. Municipal funding enabled several organizations to offer free admission (a circumstance that is quite rare in the United States but common in other countries, such as the UK; see Sandell and Nightingale, 2012). More typically, the local policies that mattered most were policies set by school boards and social service agencies, which could either support collaboration with ISE organizations or make it more difficult. For example, district-wide cuts in funding for field trips drastically reduced the number of school-aged children who participated in onsite equity programs at several organizations in our sample.

The most obvious types of policy support, short-term grants and special funding initiatives, were a powerful impetus to equity work: participants at most organizations reported seeking them out, and most organizations operated at least one program that they designated as equity-relevant on limited-term grant funding. At the same time, the year-to-year variability of these policies hindered the growth and development of equity programs. A programmatic leader in the West described the cycle of growth and retrenchment with a note of resignation, saying

you know, everybody usually gets a really great grant, they are able to see this great, amazing work, and then after there is no more funding they are able to keep maybe a piece of what it is they were doing kind of going and alive. But, they can't really do it in the full way that they would hope to do it because it's not sustainable.

Economic downturns posed a particular challenge for new equity programs, because they often increased demand while reducing available resources. As one administrative leader noted,

When finances get tight, equity often gets put on the back burner by other agencies… [yet] in these challenging economic times there may be sixty thousand requests, not forty thousand, to take advantage of that [free membership] program.

It is interesting to note that several ISE organizations in our sample saw themselves as policy actors as well as receivers of policy, working in more and less subtle ways to influence local government action or shape how established policy goals were realized. Several larger organizations took on the operation of schools, while the administrative leaders of several others held seats on community development corporations or local governance bodies. One organization in our sample established an independent arm that could engage in lobbying activities at the city or state level. Describing the impetus for this work, the administrative leader said that it was his organization's effort to “take ownership of our power as a voice in the community.” Such activities mark a striking shift from seeking representation from their communities to representing their communities to outside audiences.

Historical Context

Although demographic, geographic, and political factors exerted a clear influence on equity work, they did not directly determine what equity meant or what equity work an organization pursued. Even within our sample, organizations responded differently to conditions that appeared similar on the surface. For example, two organizations in the West and the Midwest forged different sorts of relationships with politically influential Native American groups: one organization systematically included them in the design and selection of exhibitions, while the other considered them primarily a target for outreach. Two organizations in the Southeast both reported growing Latino populations, but one organization treated Latinos as the focal target for linguistically and culturally specific programming, while the other considered them one group among many.

Local conditions, rather than bluntly determining the shape of equity-related programs, were filtered through each organization's unique historical and institutional context. As Nightingale and Mahal (2012) have observed elsewhere, prior decisions and the influence of individual staff members shaped the idea of equity and the nature of equity work at many organizations in our sample. Many participants described the influence of charismatic and justice-oriented leaders, culturally diverse administrators with deep community roots, or exhibit developers who used their own life experience as people of color or people with disabilities to inform design decisions. Although it is impossible to quote from their stories without identifying their organizations, the overall theme is summed up in the words of one administrative leader who said, “you can draw a straight line from their contributions to this institution to how far we have come in these areas; those individuals' personal contributions and personal stories helped shape this institution's legacy in that area.”

Despite the efforts of particular individuals, it is also clear that equity work was constrained by staff turnover and institutional inertia, including the persistence of older practices, older exhibits, and older organizational values. One programmatic leader described how sustaining progress was “very hard because you know… once people start leaving, then the project is not important anymore until an issue comes up and then you start again.” Another programmatic leader, frustrated by stubborn resistance to renovations, worried that “all the new stuff gets negated by all the old stuff, and it's just so hard to change a whole big huge institution, so that it kind of reflects what you want to believe in.” And an administrative leader who believed that progress on equity required an organization “to really work hard to cut across all divisions” reported that his own organization was guilty of backsliding: “sometimes you take two steps ahead and you fall three back.”

Results Part 3: The Emergence of Client and Cooperative Logics

Although we were aware of contrasts and variation in the work our participants associated with equity, we had not identified separate logics underlying these differences until one participant cast the matter in sharp relief by observing that some organizations maintained an identity that was separate from their diverse local communities:

there are people that still have this attitude of, “we are we, and they are them.” A lot of times programming, or evaluations, are based on that. And these are highly educated, well-intended people, but they're still running this paradigm of us/them.

As we explored this theme in our own data, we noticed a difference between activities in which staff saw themselves as separate from but working to serve their diverse communities and activities in which they saw themselves as belonging to and comprising those communities. We called the first way of thinking and acting client logic and the second way cooperative logic.

When an organization was using client logic, staff tended to see themselves and their colleagues as a coherent “us,” separated by institutional barriers from the less distinct “them” of the surrounding community. The challenge of equity was framed in terms of serving an external clientele. In the words of one administrative leader “how do we raise the awareness of the community at large that, you know, we are here to serve you?” On the other hand, when an organization was using cooperative logic, its language and activities emphasized shared ownership of programs, and staff found many ways to blur the lines between the institutional “us” and community “them.”

The evidence that led us to this conclusion is already summarized in the previous two results sections. Rather than repeat that evidence here, we review it in Table 1, which shows how the trends and variation in earlier sections can be interpreted as manifestations of the client and cooperative logics. The two subsections which are not included focus on framing the specific terms that ISE organizations used to discuss their equity work and on unique historical context; in the first case, we found no predictable connection between the use of terms like equity, access, and diversity and the adoption of a particular institutional logic. In the second case, it was difficult to attribute unique events and particular staff member contributions to institutional logic.

Table 1. Influence of client and cooperative logics at different levels of equity work
Client logicCooperative logic
Field-wide norms
Staffing & human resources
Diverse staff is aspirational: “when your community attends or comes to your museum, it's nice to see someone who looks like them in all aspects of the organization.”Diverse staff is necessary: “if were we not reflective of our community both in terms of the board and our staff… we would no longer be relevant.”
Recruitment focuses on diversity targets: “let me know when there's someone who would help us to reach our diversity goals.”Recruitment focuses locally to reflect shifting demographic context: “if we are recruiting in our local community we are recruiting a diverse workforce.”
Appropriate, diverse candidates for existing positions are seen as rare: “if I can find a minority female mathematician with management and leadership skills…”Emphasizes training and promotion across roles and departments: “we've created a career path for her by which she's not just working in the business office, but actually increasingly contributing to the overall organization.”
Addressing equity on the museum floor
Focuses on externalized barriers: “it's hard to get those kids in here.”Makes less distinction between equity-oriented work and normal work: “we don't do these programs which are sort of labeled… the regular experience is for our diverse community.”
Focuses on special exhibits and programs as lures for diverse visitors: “trying to get feedback from [a broad range of communities] on what we could do to make programs that would attract them to come.”Emphasizes co-development, with community involved early on: “if we're going to create new materials we should be creating them with all of our audiences.”
Seeks feedback from specific groups for projects already underwayGathers broad community input even when a particular group is not the focus of an initiative
Taking science to the people
Outreach attempts to replicate the museum floor in other settings: “meet one in four students… in their classroom.”Programs and activities are created to meet community needs: “the librarians loved that and they said, ‘Do you have a version of this that parents could check out and take home?”’
Staff remain the primary mediators of science learning experiences: “we go to a rural school with twelve different activities, set up a bunch of tables.”Empowers community members to mediate science learning: “they could go back into their communities and deliver these workshops within their own community… this way, they would be seen by their neighbors as science experts.”
 Fosters the capacity of partner organizations: “we will help you do it, we will be here with you as long as you want, but you know, this is really kind of your program, not our program.”
Local influence
Demographic, geographic, & political context
Picks and chooses which aspects of equity to address: “we don't even know what the second most often spoken language would be for our institution.”Attempts to institutionalize connections to community: “we alternate between having a community advisory board members talk about what they're trying to accomplish and having us chime in with how we might be able to support that, and then kind of vice versa.”
 Seeks to represent the community, rather than seeking representation from it: “take ownership of our power as a voice in the community.”

Because each of these quotes is removed from its original context, a more detailed and concrete example may help illustrate the contrast between client and cooperative logics. Perhaps the most compelling example comes from comparing youth internship programs across the organizations in our sample. Most organizations had such a program, and all but one targeted youth from underrepresented minority groups. In many cases, youth interns served an important functional role on the museum floor, conducting demonstrations and explaining exhibits while simultaneously increasing the visible diversity of the floor staff. In addition to the training required to play these roles, many ISE organizations also provided services such as academic enrichment, job skills training, and even college guidance. At first glance, this arrangement seems like a paradigmatic example of cooperative engagement with members of the community. Yet most internship programs assigned diverse young people to fulfill prescribed roles, conducting and participating in educational programs designed by permanent staff. Although the youth interns presumably knew a great deal about their diverse communities, they were not invited to contribute new programming, and there was no obvious path for them to move up within the organization. These programs were using client logic: in each case, youth worked at the ISE organization but were still, in an importance sense, an audience for its programs.

In several exceptional cases, youth interns were seen as a source of knowledge and creativity, and, as such, were extensively involved in programmatic decisions. They offered input into the direction of existing projects and suggested new ones, at least some of which were actually realized. For example, one administrative leader described how “our program for putting learning spaces in low-income housing communities… was a youth generated activity. It wasn't a very wise adult leader of a science museum. It was our young people.” Permanent staff worked on projects that were conceptualized and designed by young members of their community. And, in at least one case, there was a clear pathway through which youth interns could become permanent staff members. These internship programs were using cooperative logic: they considered the considered diverse young people who participated to be members of their communities and creative contributors to ISE work at the same time.

Discussion: Equity Logics and Their Consequences

What does this particular approach to equity reveal about the work of ISE organizations and their attempts to meet the challenge laid out in Excellence and Equity—a challenge that we have argued is general to the field of museums and science centers? As other researchers begin to explore how equity is defined in the work of one particular ISE organization (Vossoughi, Escudé, Kong, & Hooper, 2013) or a small number of organizations (Golding, 2009), we believe that there is value in looking across the field. Informed by institutional theory, a field-wide perspective such as ours can help reveal not only what equity means to an isolated group of practitioners, but also how organizations differ, and how each organization's approach to equity reflects the tensions and evolution of the field as a whole.

The distinction that we have drawn between client logic and cooperative logic represents a single snapshot in time, but it resonates with other important work that has emerged from long interaction with ISE organizations. In particular, the published and unpublished findings of Garibay and colleagues have begun to give shape to the challenges that ISE organizations face, and the pitfalls they encounter, as they attempt to broaden their audiences (Garibay, 2006; Stein, Garibay, & Wilson, 2008). Bell et al. summarize this work in the NRC's discussion of ISE outreach:

When museum staffs conceptualize efforts to broaden participation as ‘outreach,’ they implicitly endorse this [staff-centric] view of ownership. The term ‘outreach’ implies that some communities are external to the institution. Collaboration, partnership, and diversity in power and ‘ownership’ may provide greater opportunity for nondominant groups to see their own ways of sense-making reflected in informal settings, designed environments, and practices. (Bell et al., 2009, p. 232)

Working along similar lines, Ash and Lombana (2013) outline an agenda for transforming the relationship between ISE organizations and their publics. This transformation, which they refer to as reculturing, requires

working with visitors' agendas in mind; developing a sense of shared purpose, practices, values and beliefs; a deep commitment for collaborating with all visitors; developing reflective and collaborative practices for improvement; and, most crucially, sharing power at all levels.

Our findings indicate that some ISE organizations are embracing these goals and attempting to embody them in their everyday work. Although these organizations seem to be doing the same things as other ISE organizations—recruiting diverse staff, adapting their floor programs, and offering science learning experiences outside of the physical museum—they conceptualize and implement these common practices in a different way, using what we call cooperative logic.

Having drawn a rather stark contrast between client and cooperative logics, we now wish to clarify two important points. First, although many of the organizations in our sample tended toward one logic or the other, no single organization exclusively used client or cooperative logic. For example, we associate the language of barriers with client logic, yet the idea that barriers to ISE are characteristics of potential visitors (instead of the ISE organization) was pervasive even among organizations that tended to use cooperative logic. Second, although it is tempting to value closer connections with the community for their own sake, we believe that high quality equity work can be conducted using client logic as well. Here, we differ from Bell et al. (2009), who seem to argue for a wholesale shift toward cooperative logic:

informal environments for learning should be developed and implemented with the interests and concerns of community and cultural groups in mind: Project goals should be mutually determined by educators and the communities and cultural groups they serve. (Bell et al., 2009, p236)

Both client and cooperative logics offer certain advantages. Our research was not focused on effectiveness, but our findings suggest that cooperative logic may help ISE organizations maintain more fluid and dynamic connections with their changing communities, recognize and meet the needs of smaller and less visible minority groups, and open up a broader array of partnerships with local agencies and organizations. Cooperative logic may also aid in the long-term institutionalization of equity initiatives: if community voices are internalized throughout the organization, their influence depends less on particular committed staff members. Yet we think it is important to consider why ISE professionals might choose client-oriented strategies, and to recognize that at least some of those who use client logic are aware of more community-centered options. In particular, because cooperative strategies are both time and resource-intensive, client logic may offer more efficient ways to address particular well-known and deeply entrenched problems. This is no small matter. Many ISE organizations operate close to the edge of insolvency under the best of circumstances. During times of financial stress (induced, for example, by shifts in government funding), an ISE organization may actually be able to accomplish more by judiciously choosing which challenges to tackle.

Client logic may also protect and enhance the things that make a particular ISE organization interesting and unusual. Although we have used the word “community” primarily to refer to the people who live nearby, ISE organizations and their staff also belong to other communities, including most notably their professional community (Dimaggio, 1991). This community has its own professional norms, including powerful traditions of design and artisanship that help give science museums and science centers their personality. On occasion, these traditions may lead to programmatic choices that do not reflect the tastes or needs of the communities around them—one organization in our sample celebrated these “difficult” exhibits as a sign of their boundary-pushing aesthetic. Perhaps more often, though, these traditions enable ISE professionals to anticipate what engages and appeals to many, if not all, potential visitors. Far from an abstract luxury, the aesthetic taste and design savvy of ISE professionals can be an ISE organization's greatest asset, enabling it to compete for the time and interest of potential visitors in what Falk (2001) calls a choice-driven environment.

Some ISE organizations also see themselves as members and representatives of another community—that of science (Cole, 2009). Scientific institutions have their own professional cultures and their own systems of socialization that distinguish scientific work from other sorts of work, and set them apart even within the cultures that produced them (Knorr Cetina, 1999; Latour, 1987; Traweek, 1988). Some organizations in our sample were very strongly identified with scientific culture and scientific institutions, and saw their role (in the words of one administrative leader) as introducing people to “the world of science.” For these organizations, representing and even embodying science was a core feature of their mission that might well have sharpened the separation between staff and visitors, indirectly contributing to the adoption of client logic. At the other extreme, the children's museums in our sample were deeply and explicitly concerned with science, but did not think of themselves as part of the scientific enterprise, and often seemed far more ready to blur boundaries and accept (local) community priorities as their own.

There is some danger implicit in the desire of ISE organizations to defend their traditions and community practices, and to see themselves as representatives of science. As Ash and Lombana point out, “we have seen the persistent and dominant use of European-American middle-class standards as the norms for research [and] practice,” and “there has been a persistent lack of recognition of the existing resources learners from socially, culturally, and linguistically underrepresented backgrounds bring to learning settings” (2013, p. 72). Both scientific culture (Turnbull, 1997) and museum culture (Golding, 2009) share these tendencies; embracing the client logic too faithfully, even in the name of equity, may preserve old ways of doing things that favor a more privileged public at the expense of publics who are already poorly served by education, informal and otherwise.

Rather than asking whether ISE organizations should adopt client or cooperative logic, then, it may ultimately be most productive to ask when and how they can use both institutional logics in responding to the challenges of equity posed by their field and embodied by their local contexts. We are not naïve about the tension between these logics. Indeed, perhaps the clearest evidence we saw for the existence of different logics was the conflict within several ISE organizations where different stakeholders had adopted client and cooperative logics. At one organization, an administrative leader expressed frustration about board members who didn't understand “that your organization is not just for them.” Several ISE organizations in our sample housed their outreach and floor staff in different buildings, leading to a growing separation in routines and priorities. One programmatic leader even described her outreach operations as “very much, I would say, disconnected from what goes on, on a daily basis, here at the center.” Yet if it is possible to balance both perspectives—either in alternation or simultaneously—the ISE organization and its local community may benefit.

Conclusion and Questions for Future Research

This study has several obvious limitations, each of which provokes a new set of questions. Our decision to restrict the sample to American organizations, driven purely by limited resources, raises questions about how equity work is shaped by national culture, national conditions, and nation-level policy. This is especially true given that much of the most prominent writing on museums and equity comes from the UK, Australia, and Europe (e.g., Sandell & Nightingale, 2012). Our inclusion of children's museums, zoos and aquaria provided tantalizing hints that these organizations approach equity in different ways, but our sample was too small to tease out sub-fields from inter-organizational variance. On the other hand, our cross-organizational perspective was too broad and insufficiently deep to detect whether and how an organization's characteristic language choices (e.g., equity, diversity, or access) shaped its equity work. And our reliance on only two informants from each organization meant that we probably received a somewhat idiosyncratic picture of organizational ideals and practices (our own data support the existence of diverse perspectives with an ISE organization).

Despite these limitations, our data does shed some new light on the nature and practice of equity in ISE organizations. We identified many commonalities in how these organizations conceptualized equity and performed equity work, suggesting that the challenge of equity is well-enough established in the field for norms to have emerged. These norms can guide researchers' expectations and help them establish research questions for future studies about equity concepts and practices. We also found considerable variation among organizations. Part of this variation could be attributed to local contextual influences and each organization's unique history. Yet part of it also appeared to result from the adoption of different institutional logics—packages of rationales and strategies that were often implicit but had far-reaching consequences for which sorts of equity initiatives took priority and how they were enacted.

Although these findings offer many directions for future research, we advise university-based researchers to approach them with caution. As we ourselves discovered on more than one occasion, researchers who are not situated in museums and science centers should be careful to build on what museum-based researchers and ISE practitioners already know. For example, although there is an ongoing need to test assumptions about barriers to attendance, any new research must respond to the findings of numerous audience research studies, many of which appear in the practitioner literature (Hood, 2004). In most cases, the wisest course of action will be to collaborate with ISE professionals who are attuned to the historical traditions and shifting norms of their profession.

We do believe that university-based researchers can offer something to the discussion. Some topics, such as the experience of staff members from under-represented groups and the role of those staff members in changing visitor experience, may be easier (politically) for those outside of ISE organizations to investigate. Other questions require the sort of cross-institutional analysis that is rarely a priority for individual organizations. Finally, university-based scholars can help unpack and examine traditional practices whose historical success may obscure opportunities for further improvement. For example, prototyping is a common practice that takes many different forms within different organizations. Museum-based researchers have amply demonstrated the power of this strategy to produce novel and interesting interactive exhibits (e.g., Humphrey & Gutwill, 2005), but there is much still to learn about how the differing needs and preferences of diverse visitors can be addressed in the design of an exhibit, exhibition, or floor program. At what stages in development does the involvement of diverse communities have the greatest transformative potential? How can evaluation account for different social and cultural patterns in the use of exhibits and programs?

For researchers seeking to explore underlying influences on equity-oriented work, many of the same cautions apply. Here, though, we suggest looking beyond the fields of informal learning and science education to consider how different sorts of organizations balance the demands of their mission with a commitment to serve their communities (e.g., Tomlinson & Schwabenland, 2010). Many of the challenges that ISE organizations face, such as the challenge of recruiting, empowering, and retaining diverse staff at all levels of seniority, are common to other types of organizations (Kossek, Lobel, & Brown, 2006).

As researchers with a particular interest in the relationship between science and public, we see the tension between client and cooperative logics as a manifestation of a more profound tension in public engagement with science—the tension between deficit and dialog (Miller, 2001), or, perhaps more accurately, between dissemination and participation (Bucchi & Neresini, 2008). Different relationships between science and public are characterized by different balances of power, as well as differing degrees of access to the means of knowledge production and the authority required to claim one's own experience as true, relevant, and valid (Moore, 2005; Wynne, 1996). ISE organizations, like schools, can seek to share scientific knowledge with their audiences or they can invite them to take part in both scientific work and the broader social conversation about the nature and implications of science (Pedretti and Nazir, 2011). They can build a window in the wall between science and public or a tunnel through it. On this front, it is increasingly clear that ISE organizations face a different set of choices than schools do (Bell et al., 2009). They may be more capable of creating third spaces (Turnbull, 1997) where the cultures of western science can constructively mingle with other cultures and ways of knowing (Eisenhart & Edwards, 2004; Rahm, 2008). Yet science museums and science centers are subject to the constraints of their own histories, traditions, and ideals—and by the powerful need to ensure their own survival. The compromises they strike and the balances they achieve will determine how the field-wide challenge of equity is imagined, and addressed, in informal science education.


This study benefitted from the early advice of Doris Ash, who helped guide the initial framing and design, and from the invaluable expertise of Sue Allen, who provided critical feedback on early drafts.


1Many ISE organizations have two more-or-less distinct visitor populations: their “core visitors” and school-aged children who attend on field trips. The field trip population is often more representative of the community (S. Allen, personal communication, August 3, 2013), though participants reported that f inancial stress in the schools took a toll on field trips.

2Because partnerships with schools and school districts have been examined in detail elsewhere (e.g., Phillips, Finkelstein, & Wever-Frerichs, 2007), we focus on other sorts of organizations.