Diversity and the Contemporary Museum: Ten Questions

Aug 16 | 0 comments

Museums have a long and complicated history around issues of participation, inclusion and representation. Recently, topics that relate to diversity have been prominent, including accessibility for the disabled, the employment of diverse workforces and the continuing position of the museum and its practices towards issues of race

Last year, on a visit to the Whitney Museum, Michelle Obama stated that, as a child growing up on Chicago’s South Side, she had felt unwelcome in art museums. While complimenting the Whitney on its work, she effectively raised the question of how far have museums progressed? And it’s a question that can be extended to any museum that says it values inclusion. The two central issues being: who still doesn’t (can’t) visit and what are we going to do about it?

There is a sociology and anthropology to the cultural heritage institution. Culture is a profoundly complex concept as Raymond Williams explored several decades ago. Pierre Bourdieu’s book Distinction took a critical sociological approach to the dominance of middle-class cultural values across a variety of institutional settings, including museums, that echoes down to the present. And at least since the 1990s a variety of authors have developed a substantial literature examining the position, role and behavior of the museum as an institutional actor on social issues. These include Stephen Weil, Ivan Karp, Steven Levine, Sharon Macdonald and Tony Bennet to name but a few! The point being that this is a living and lively discourse, it’s unfinished and in all likelihood always will be because social, cultural and political change are ongoing – although not always at the same rate. Not surprisingly, museums can represent the full spectrum of responses from more conservative or establishment views through to the positively radical.

Every society has different approaches to these issues and our responses are a long way from constituting anything we might call scientific. The UK often deploys an antiracist practice framework, in the United States critical race theory and a variety of other approaches have emerged, while in Canada, Europe and Australasia multiculturalism has been varyingly popular and highly unpopular for several decades now. Many places obviously borrow similar concepts but they can’t implement them in exactly the same way because local histories and current circumstances vary enormously. Some attempts to remediate past exclusions or excesses and to include “others” have also prompted a variety of antagonistic responses. A common one is the “political correctness” label which has proven popular with those advocating for the museum as a more traditional bastion of Western values in the so-called "culture wars". The more obvious message here is that there is a deeper and enduring politics to issues of representation in all our societies.

At the heart of these matters remains the role of the museum as an institution engaged in managing its own progress, looking to the past while negotiating the changing nature of the societies within which we live, work and express our individual and collective identities. Most of us would see the museum as being potentially accessible to everyone because we accept the values of openness and accessibility and we seek to close existing gaps in practicing those values. But, in practice:

1. Are people with disabilities able to access the institution and what does that mean in terms of institutional responses? 
2. Are we going beyond the conventional stereotype of the wheelchair ramp in defining access?
3. What about living in increasingly ageing societies? 
4. What about indigenous or other minority groups including citizens and non-citizens resident in our societies? 
4. Do our cultural institutions genuinely represent us all or do they remain in whole or in part the domain of particular groups or sets of interests? 
5. Social vulnerability can severely limit many groups’ capacity to represent themselves in and to our broader societies. Where does the contemporary museum sit in all of this and how does it negotiate the deeper politics of representation? 
6. And of course what is its role in these negotiations?
7. Michelle Obama raised one aspect of what is clearly a large and very present issue in our societies and museums. Can we give adequate responses that go beyond complaints about being too PC or, alternatively, not inclusive enough?
8. What is our philosophical and practical position towards diversity in the complex and increasingly interconnected world in which we live?
9. How do we articulate those positions and manage the responses they inevitably provoke?

And - the tenth question - what positive steps can we expect to see being taken in the museums field in 2016 and beyond?

Hamish Robertson is the editor of The Caring Museum: New Models of Engagement with Ageing.


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