While museums are generally understood to be spaces that are open and available to everyone, there are many museum behaviors and assumptions that work to alienate and decrease access for certain groups. The exclusion of groups from museums is something that is not only unjust, but also detrimental to the idea of an overall public experience of arts, culture, history, and science (etc.) in museums. If all experiences and groups are equally valued and made to feel welcomed, museums will prove themselves relevant contemporary organizations attuned to the needs of their diverse and changing communities. This type of museum, or incluseum if you like, is an ideal that is on the minds of many professionals in museums today. But how does a museum adapt and adopt new behaviors? What are the most valuable functions of the museum in society and how can these be amplified through goals of inclusion?
Why this blog?
When we began to research our respective master’s thesis topics, each dealing with new strategies for including groups in museums, we had to pull literature from disparate sources and wished there was a central location where such information could be found and discussed. It occurred to us that perhaps the communication, documentation, and exchange of inclusive museum projects was and is an area that needs to be strengthened.
Creating forums for discussion and research can make social inclusion projects visible and useful to those who wish to pursue similar goals. As a result, professionals may feel less like islands and more like active participants in a strong community. This blog is one way in which conversations and projects about inclusion in museums can be collected and made more accessible, as well as addressed expeditiously. We hope that documenting these areas of practice and research will promote community and contribute to building a stronger foundation for socially inclusive practices in museums.
…So, what exactly do we mean by social inclusion?
About defining “social inclusion”
Unfortunately, there isn’t an established and agreed upon definition of social inclusion in museums. As a result, the term “social inclusion” tends to be a little tricky and mean different things to different people. This can be problematic, as the lack of a clear definition or common language to speak of this topic often results in socially inclusive initiatives existing in isolation, lacking connections to one another.
Towards a (working) definition
Last month, during the annual Washington Museum Association (WMA) conference, we organized and facilitated a conversation on social inclusion in museums. About 15 people joined us to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences with social inclusion. To kick off our time together, we asked participants to write down on a notecard what social inclusion means to them. Here are some examples of participants’ definitions:
- “Paying attention to needs and responding. Interpersonal relationships.”
- “A practice. Thinking critically all the time about who’s included/excluded by choices we make and becoming conscious and intentional about these choices.”
- “Framing conversations in a way that is accessible to everyone.”
- “Creating an inviting and friendly space and environment.”
What we immediately found cool about these definitions is how they highlight different aspects contributing to social inclusion: the attributes of the space/environment, building relationships, being in sync with the local community, self-awareness, etc. Additionally, we found a common thread running through them: intention. While one of the definitions explicitly mentions the need to infuse our choices with intention, we believe all definitions point to that theme. For example, building relationships with diverse community groups, creating an inviting and friendly space where all can feel welcome, and growing more self-aware/reflective all demand a great deal of intention. Thus, social inclusion is not expected to just happen…it’s something that demands thought, planning, and effort.
So, based on the insight provided by our fellow museum practitioners and our personal research in the realm of museums and social inclusion, we propose the following working definition for social inclusion:
Social inclusion in museums refers to a broad range of museum-related activities aimed at extending museum resources to all groups in society and addressing contemporary social issues. These initiatives center on representation, exploring barriers to access, and issues of disadvantage and inequity.
What do you think: How would you define or qualify social inclusion? What does it mean to you? We would love to hear your thoughts!