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Peabody Essex Museum receives grant to support Native American Fellowship

Setting up for “Native Fashion Now” at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Setting up for “Native Fashion Now” at the Peabody Essex Museum. David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Peabody Essex Museum has received a $750,000 grant to expand a fellowship program intended to train aspiring Native American museum professionals. The three-year grant, awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will enable the museum to increase the number of fellows it admits annually, extend the program to 12 weeks, and introduce more formal mentoring programs.

“We’re absolutely delighted to be partnering with the Mellon Foundation,” said PEM director Dan Monroe. “It offers an opportunity for more young Native American leaders to significantly strengthen their capabilities to be successful in many cultural arenas — be it in their communities or in the context of their existing institutions, whether it’s an art museum like PEM or another organization.”

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First created by the museum six years ago, the Native American Fellowship program is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country. Reserved for students of Native American or native Hawaiian descent, the program provides specific fellowships in curatorial, educational, media, and manuscript processing.

The museum had previously funded the fellowships on its own, with fellows contributing research to exhibitions such as “Native Fashion Now,” which is currently on view. Monroe said the new grant would enable the museum to provide fellows with more hands-on experience in the day-to-day operations of an institution.

“We want to strengthen the value of the program that we’re offering,” said Monroe, who added that the museum would continue its own financing of the program. “We expect them to come in and function and work at a professional level. But we also want to bring in people with expertise in fund-raising, communications, organizational politics — opportunities that are simply not provided in terms of their academic programs.”

Mariët Westermann, vice president of the Mellon Foundation, said the grant to the PEM was in keeping with the Foundation’s ongoing efforts to increase staff, audience, and programming diversity within art museums, making them “more representative of the great and rapidly changing diversity of the American people.”

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Westermann noted that a recent survey conducted by the Mellon Foundation (along with the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums) found that while women now make up some 60 percent of museum workers, minorities remain woefully under-represented in leadership positions.

The study found that while minorities comprise 28 percent of museum staffs, the vast majority work in security, facilities, finance, and human resources. When it came to roles such as curators, conservators, and educators, however, minorities were significantly underrepresented. Blacks accounting for only 4 percent of the workforce, “White Hispanics” just 3 percent. Native Americans and native Hawaiians registered zero percent for such positions.

“We believe much more can be done with the country’s museums to create better and broader understanding of this great cultural heritage,” said Westermann, who praised PEM’s “record of training emerging scholars and museum professionals” of Native American origin. “A new generation of curators, many from Native communities, has a crucial role to play in this work.”

Monroe said the Salem museum, which houses nearly 15,000 Native American objects, has a special commitment to indigenous peoples.

“Since we possess one of the most important collections of Native American art we have responsibilities that exceed simply assuring that it’s properly cared for and that we’re doing innovative exhibitions and publications,” he said. “We feel a responsibility for actually helping steward and support the continuation and advancement of Native American and native Hawaiian cultures.”

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Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.