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Belonging: Co-creating welcoming and equitable museums

Category: Facing Change
A neon sign that reads "You Belong Here" in cursive.
A Facing Change Senior Diversity Fellow reflects on barriers that make visitors feel unwelcome in museums, and shares questions we can ask to remove them. Photo credit: "You Belong Here (Yellow)" by Tavares Strachan displayed at the Blanton Museum of Art; photo by Amer Mughawish on Unsplash.

“Can you describe a time you felt unwelcome or like you didn’t belong in a museum?”

This question was posed during a recent conference call for the Facing Change Senior Diversity Fellows. As I listened to my distinguished colleagues recount their lived experiences of exclusion and unwelcome, many of them tied to racism, I tried to hold myself accountable to all the privilege I walk with in the world. Then it was my turn. Though I did not have the same experience with racism and did not wish to make a false equivalency, I wanted to share a story of my own and honor how it has shaped my journey personally and professionally. The story was of my first visit to a children’s museum with my daughter, who at the time was a year old. I had just moved to a new city and had been told by other parents about the wonderful local children’s museum. I had never been to one, despite having rich and expansive experiences with other kinds of museums and cultural institutions.

While the exhibits at the children’s museum were thoughtful and playful, somehow the experience left me feeling isolated and alone, like I didn’t really belong.  There weren’t any signs or liaisons helping me figure out my role in this unfamiliar play environment, or pointing me to reflect on what the exhibits might teach. Looking around at the other groups of parents, I felt different from them; they seemed to have an understanding or secret code that I didn’t have. As a relatively new parent and a first-time visitor to this kind of museum, I felt the familiar twinge of “otherness” from my own childhood in an immigrant family.  I felt it especially after my daughter had a hard time taking turns and sharing with another child, leading to an awkward encounter with a parent. Ultimately, our visit ended with us sitting on a bench as I read her a book, an activity I knew well and felt comfortable doing, and then we left.

A year later I returned to work and, as fate would have it, I found myself working in a children’s museum. I learned all about the deep and thoughtful intention that went into exhibits and programs, how they were designed based on theories of child development to promote health, inquiry, connection, and bonding. I felt I had finally been given the secret decoder ring I had been missing to understand all the benefits that a visit to a sensory-rich environment has on the growth and development of a child. In my role as an outreach coordinator, it was my job to share this newfound understanding with underrepresented and under-resourced communities, to help them reap those benefits with the sense of belonging and understanding that I had not felt.

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But my joy and enthusiasm for this responsibility was soon tempered by the realization that it was rooted in a posture of “doing to” these communities, instead of the empowerment of “co-creating with” them. I had my eyes opened to the deep racial inequities that existed in my city, leading me to reflect on my complicity in upholding structural racism. I had to look hard at what I was doing and how I was doing it—was I acting as a “white savior” upholding a hierarchy even while I felt like an outsider myself? How could I follow the path of empathy for this feeling of exclusion to the understanding and accountability that would make a more equitable and inclusive institution?

My personal and organizational journey was not a solo adventure. It was supported by the museum’s leadership and done in collaboration with colleagues, childcare providers, and families, as well as many wonderful mentors in racial and social justice. At times this work was hard, messy, off-base, and complicated.  But what ultimately emerged was a community-created understanding of the barriers to participation that marginalized and minoritized people face in many public spaces. I’ve since adapted this understanding into a framework of guiding questions to help develop strategies for becoming more inclusive and welcoming.

Every community and its needs are different, so your organization’s approach to inclusion and belonging should ideally be co-created with the community and local ecosystem in which it exists. I offer the following barriers and guiding questions in the spirit of reflection and as a starting point to creating collaborations, programs, policies, and practices that deepen the sense of belonging in your institution by your full community.

1. Not seeing yourself, your family, or your values reflected in the staff, activities, or values of the organization

This may be the strongest and most persistent barrier. It is one that our field has been putting effort and energy into and continues to grapple with. It is not enough to say we will diversify our staff; we must be willing to transform the culture of our institutions into inclusive places to work, visit, and champion. In the end, all of us resource with our time and energy the things we value. How valued are we as museums if only a part of our community is engaging with us?

Guiding questions and reflections:

  • Whose voices and experiences are we centering?
  • Whose are we leaving out?
  • Who is harmed by our policies and practices, and who is helped?
  • How are programs reflecting our community’s depth and richness beyond food, flags, and festivals?
  • How are we listening to and engaging with our community? Can we go deeper?
  • How are we incorporating the values and voices of our community into our exhibits, programs, policies, and practices?

2. Being in spaces with unstated behavior and/or learning expectations rooted in dominant culture

I have had over twenty years to reflect on my own discomfort in the children’s museum. My difficulties with parenting in public, “getting” the learning experience, and doing things the “right way,” are all sentiments I felt and heard from others as reasons they choose not to visit museums.

Guiding questions and reflections:

  • Are the guiding principles and behavioral expectations for learning in your museum reflective of a multicultural perspective, or do they only reflect the dominant culture?
  • What are ways we can we learn to welcome multiple styles of learning and behavior?
  • Who can we collaborate and co-create with to deepen our understanding and practice?
  • Are we thinking about what the experience could be instead of “should” be?

3. Having to share low-income status (aka poverty shaming)

Throughout our field there have been great strides in making visits to our institutions affordable, and most initiatives are income-based or tied to public assistance. But many families who would qualify for these programs still choose not to use them, for fear of having to disclose this information in front of their children or being treated differently for it. Having to prove low-income status with documentation undermines the impact of these programs.

Field Example:

Madison Children’s Museum removed the documentation requirement for its low-cost access memberships, which resulted in increased sign-ups and visits without any reduction in the other membership levels. There was also an increase in donations and grant funds to support the program. These goals were realized through deep community engagement and listening, as well as the courage to ask if standard practice creates additional barriers.

Guiding questions and reflections:

  • How might programs that make the experience affordable and inclusive actually be creating a barrier to participation?
  • Have we created opportunities for deep listening from agencies and participants on how these programs are working?
  • How do we talk about the programs with visitors? With staff? With donors?
  • Do we ask for proof of low-income status for discounted admission/membership?
  • How might a belief in program abuse be creating more barriers or a culture of judgment?

4. Not speaking the primary language used by the museum

Having to navigate interactions as a limited English speaker narrows the amount of places individuals and families will go. Often they will choose places that have significant staffing, visitation, and engagement in their native languages instead.

Guiding questions and reflections:

  • What strategies, policies, and procedures are in place in your museum that address multilingual communication, such as staff and volunteer expertise, multilingual signage, interpretation, and translations for print and online materials?
  • Have you sought out an assessment of how many languages are spoken in your community?
  • Who can you partner with to increase staff/volunteer presence and support in multiple languages?

5. Not having physical or cognitive needs met

The wide array of different physical and cognitive abilities offers an opportunity to work with agencies to assess the needs of the community and adapt exhibits and experiences within our museum to meet them. ADA compliance is not full inclusion or accessibility.

Guiding questions and reflections:

  • Who are partners that we can collaborate and co-create with to increase accessibility and inclusion?
  • Have we built partnerships with our city and county’s office of civil rights/disability rights to provide training, support, and advice on exhibit and program accessibility?
  • How can we apply a design thinking approach to create better experiences for everyone by addressing the specific challenges faced by people with disabilities?
  • Have we assessed whether exhibits, programs, websites, and staffing are inclusive? Who can help us examine this?

6. Not having time to visit

Our most valuable and finite resource is time.  The pressures on modern families who are working multiple jobs, juggling competing activities and schedules, running single-parent households, or living in crisis and poverty severely limit the time to devote to visiting and engaging in museum experiences.

Guiding questions and reflections:

  • How well do we understand the demands on time that all families face, and the extra time cost for marginalized and minoritized communities?
  • What activities, events, and outreach programs are in place to address this and help expand engagement?
  • How are we making decisions about hours of operation?
  • Are we offering expanded events beyond regular hours?
  • What are our field trip options?
  • How can we engage community employers in creating opportunities within the workday to participate and visit?

7. Not being able to afford the cost of visiting and transportation

The price of a visit can be prohibitive, even when museums offer low-cost admissions, because of the added costs for food, parking, and transportation.

Guiding questions and reflections:

  • How do people get to our institutions?
  • Is mass transit an option in your community? Is it convenient?
  • How is this issue compounded for those without cars in areas where it is considered essential to have one?
  • Do we allow visitors to bring their own food?
  • How far away is the closest parking? Is there accessible and convenient parking for people with limited mobility and families with little ones?

One of the most significant questions we must keep asking ourselves is “for whom do we exist?” By reflecting on the layered impact of these barriers, questioning policies, engaging in community listening, and centering the voices of our communities (especially those who are marginalized and minoritized) we can begin to dismantle them with asset-based collaborative solutions. By doing so, we can make our institutions relevant, thriving places of connection, learning, and dialogue. Our very survival depends on it.

“…your world and my world,

Belonging to all the hands who build.”

-Langston Hughes

About the author:

Sandra Bonnici is a Facing Change Senior Diversity Fellow and DEAI consultant. She has spent most of her career in the museum field with a focus on community engagement, cultural competency, and education programming. She has served on several arts and youth boards, and as a workshop leader and consultant for museums, libraries, and non-profit organizations on topics such as strategic planning and organizational change around diversity and inclusion, barriers to participation for under-resourced and under-represented audiences, teen workforce development, and special needs inclusion.

 

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Comments

3 Comments

  1. I love museums! And this article is very true. Museums are supposed to be safe places and that allows people to feel that they belong. Though, the last museum I was employed at lacked that component unfortunately which made it a much different experience.

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