Setting the Stage Part II: Social exclusion and why social inclusion in museums matters

Social Exclusion: a multi-dimensional and interrelated process through which groups in society become disenfranchised and marginalized by being shut out, fully or partially, from any social, economic, political, and cultural systems (Sandell 1998)

How do Museums contribute to social exclusion?
The above definition can be used to demonstrate how museums, situated within the “cultural system,” may be enmeshed in and contribute to the process of exclusion. Concrete examples of how museums might contribute to social exclusion include:

  • promoting and affirming dominant values and beliefs (through collections, exhibitions, marketing, etc.) with little or no mention of minority/alternative views and lifestyles
  • creating programming without consulting a wide range of communities on their needs and interests and operating with assumptions about what audiences want or value
  • withholding interpretive authority, instead of finding ways for communities to participate in the interpretive process
  • providing cultural spaces that encourage the comfort of dominant groups, making the museum environment inaccessible to groups of other experiences and abilities
  • failing to evaluate services and programs by observing visitors, collecting feedback and listening to communities and their experiences

Why does social inclusion in museums matter?
Beyond the fact that we don’t want our work to contribute to social exclusion, we will highlight 2 main reasons why we think social inclusion in museums matters.

1. Engaging with museums and the arts can have positive impacts
Among many examples, this paper by Richard Sandell discusses how museums can positively impact individuals, communities, and society. Specifically:

  • Individuals can experience enhanced self-esteem, confidence and creativity
  • Communities can be supported in their self-determination and the development of their neighborhoods
  • Society can be benefited by museums’ representation of inclusive communities in both collections and exhibitions, promotion of tolerance, and challenge of stereotypes

2. Changing communities = changing needs
Today, American society is undergoing considerable change. These changes include:

  • Shifting demographic landscape:
    • As discussed in this report  by PolicyLink, the aging US population is around 80% white, while the younger generation is at least 50% of color as a result of last century’s immigration patterns.
    • According to a report by The Center for the Future of Museums, 1 in 3 Americans is currently part of a “minority” group. It is projected that most of our country’s future population growth will come from the minority population. In fact, 4 U.S. States are already majority minority (Hawaii, Texas, New Mexico, and California).
  • Aging population:
    • Again, the report by The Center for the Future of Museums discusses how 1 in 8 Americans is now older than 65, becoming 1 in 5 by 2034
  • Widening income disparities
    • This report by The Legal Services of NJ Poverty Research Institute focuses on income inequality in New Jersey which has risen considerably over the last decades. As discussed in a research document by the Congressional Budget Office, this trend is reflected across the U.S. (see graph below).
    • It is widely understood that income inequality in the US has risen over the last 30 years, but it is less agreed upon that this inequality causes negative social outcomes. However, a range of research concludes that areas experiencing greater income and wealth inequality consistently score higher via indexes of health and social problems.

Engaging with the arts, including museums, can yield important benefits. However, ensuring that all community members have the opportunity to access cultural resources via museums remains a challenge for institutions that have traditionally been exclusive. Yet, as organizations existing within changing communities, we believe that museums have an important role to play in shaping an inclusive society. Museums must respond to the changes in American society in order to remain relevant to new generational and community needs. We envision museums using their unique object-based resources and assets as safe civic spaces to respond to community needs, becoming increasingly relevant to diverse community members and supportive of their aspirations.

In fewer words, social inclusion in museums is necessary! It can benefit our communities and its members and ensures that museums remain relevant and survive.

Now that we have “set the stage” and framed our current perspectives, it’s time to give inclusive projects and research a new venue in which to take center stage!

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3 comments

  1. […] but rather from a realization,  (at many times frustrating,) that museums actually do actively contributetosocialexclusion.  along with a vision and confidence that museums can be increasingly proactive […]

  2. This article entitled Diversify or Die: Why the Art World Needs to Keep Up With Our Changing Society captures the thoughts we’ve been discussing above. We’re glad to see these discussion take place in other, more mainstream venues.

  3. […] about what we mean by “social inclusion in museums,” please refer to our first and second blog […]

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