Incluseum Design Session with Museum of Northwest Art

In mid-October the Incluseum was honored with the request to facilitate an Incluseum Design Session during the first part of the Museum of Northwest Art’s (MONA) annual staff retreat.  We leaped at this opportunity! As a project that advocates for social inclusion in museums, supporting museums and their staff with resources as they openly dive into the process of becoming more inclusive institutions is a big part of fulfilling the Incluseum’s purpose.

This week, after the Ferguson verdict announcement, we are wondering how museums are responding to the turmoil and mourning in local communities across the country. A great article was written about the Ferguson Library’s response, which was to open its doors deliberately to provide a space for communities to gather and use library resources all the while offering words of support via its social media feeds. This action made us wonder why more museums did not take similar steps to open their doors and invite communities in…there are examples of museums doing this in the past. We are excited when museums like MONA want to build their reputation for openness and working together with local communities. How powerful would it be for all museums to one day be understood in the best of times as fun, supportive and inclusive and, in the toughest times, as safe spaces for comfort, connection and even healing?

Is your museum looking for resources in order to take steps toward inclusion goals or interested in setting inclusion goals together?  We would love to hear about it and support this work! – Aletheia

* * * *

The Museum of Northwest Art is a regionally focused, anchor arts institution in Washington’s Skagit Valley, located in the city of La Conner. MONA’s mission is to “provide engaging informative experiences for visitors and the region’s communities by illuminating the dynamic connections between art, diverse cultures and environments in the Northwest” (From their website.)  Earlier this year MONA met as a staff and developed a list of Inclusion Goals. These goals cover everything from expanding the collection to represent more artists of color to examining hiring policies and job descriptions to make sure that they are attracting a diverse pool of job applicants and volunteers.

At the retreat, after introductions and coffee, we began by reviewing MONA’s Inclusion goals which had been set at a previous staff meeting. Since it had been awhile since these goals had been set, we all needed a refresher to start on the same page. Once this was done, we moved on to address 2 questions I had put together and shared with staff in advance; questions that I had for them after reviewing their list of Inclusion Goals.  These were:

  • What specific local communities would you like MoNA to be more connected with?/Communities that reflect the groups you perceive to be unengaged currently.
  • How can MoNA be a space that is welcoming to these specific communities?

We wrote down staff answers and perspectives on these questions as a group. Then, we moved on to an Incluseum Design Session.  What is that you ask?  An Incluseum Design Session is an activity that asks participants to design an “incluseum”, an envisioned arts and cultural organization centered on the value of inclusion. Participants are encouraged to think freely about what this organization should be, from its appearance to its organizational structure and role within its community. Of course an “incluseum” is different than a “museum.”  An incluseum’s central feature is inclusion and from there everything else follows. This exercise invites participants to move beyond the everyday challenges and barriers of working in their museum and collaboratively design a space/place that is really more about their inclusive vision. It also invites staff to generate new metaphors for museums and imagine new ways of being a museum-like institution.

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MONA staff just beginning to brainstorm as they imagine and sketch an Incluseum for LaConner.

But what could an incluseum look like in LaConner?  To complete the design activity, the group was split into two teams and each team used a worksheet that prompted them to describe and express their design. After a while we got back together as a group and swapped “Incluseum” stories.

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MONA staff brainstorm and sketch as they imagine an Incluseum for LaConner

So what were MONA’s Incluseum designs like?

The Incluseums generated during the session reflect the distinctive interests of their respective design teams, but also share many similar attributes. Most strikingly, both designs ended up representing more inclusive versions of the current MONA. Other common features of the two designs were:

  • An activated facade and threshold to the organization.
    • Temporary messages, prompts, questions or art that serve to invite the curiosity of passersby on the street and bring them into the building.
    • Entryway experiences that invite visitors to imagine that they are embarking on a journey instead of entering a museum.
    • Entryway spaces that feel alive, active, and fun.
  • Welcoming windows into and onto an active gift shop.The windows of the museum are a central way for museum interior spaces and exterior streetlife to interact.  These windows should convey activity and not just what is for sale.
    • A gift shop as a cafe/refreshment space
    • A gift shop as a place to relax or meet for staff and community with chairs and couches.
    • Opportunities for community programming.
  • Small area reserved for rotating community activities, murals or arts
    • Opportunities for community partnerships, leadership and ownership.
    • Opportunities for community curation.
    • Opportunities for flexibility and “collection free” space.
    • Visible activity and participation that is seen from the street.
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Staff sketches depicting the look of the Incluseum.

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Staff illustrated the ideas influencing the Incluseum of LaConner.

Together, these similarities indicate a collective awareness of the incremental changes MONA staff could make to generate big impact on how they conceive of creating and sustaining relationships with local communities that they identify as historically underserved by the museum.

After the Incluseum design activity the groups reconvened to bridge their designs with concrete steps MONA could take in its current work towards inclusion. The three action items that the whole group compiled were:

  • Create entryway activity.
  • Create entryway seating.
  • Designate a blank wall in the museum as a canvas for temporary murals and art installations.

These three actionable steps summarized the group’s desire to have prominent and central museum spaces programmed to offer visible areas for community members to relax, socialize, take part in a program or create art. Museum staff are already working towards realizing this vision as an active museum core. They have lots of ideas, lots of connections, and the desire to become a more open and inviting institution at the heart of La Conner and the Skagit Valley.


The design activity invites staff members to imagine an “Incluseum” and for the duration of the activity forget about the pressures and realities that create barriers to change; they can even forget about the identity of their current institution. I found that it was very hard for staff to keep from returning to these challenges and realities. The pervasive set of challenges MONA faces is real and similar to those most organizations face, and it was hard to completely forget about them. However, via the activity, staff talked about these challenges in different ways. The activity turned the group’s focus toward imagining a future beyond current challenges and distractions; the staff was able to envision inclusive ways of being and speak in detail of this vision.

The challenge for MONA and for many other museums is to translate a desire for inclusion into an institutionally embedded practice of seeking opportunities to listen to historically underserved community groups and leaders. Action items have little impact if they are not informed by those people that you wish to serve. The action with the biggest impact might be participating in off-site opportunities to listen to communities or provide frameworks where exchange and listening may occur more freely. Understanding how internal instincts about inclusion measure up to the perspectives of the audiences museum’s wish to engage enables staff to channel or redirect energy with confidence.

When museums like MONA step openly into the process of discovering what/how a more inclusive institution looks and behaves like, they are making an investment in growing the concept of museums as institutions that work with and learn from their local communities.

MONA’s Reflections on the Incluseum Session

In closing, here are a few thoughts shared by a couple MONA staff members:

I felt the discussion you facilitated was a useful culmination of previous staff discussions. We began to articulate the challenges in really becoming accessible. I would recommend this activity to others. Thank you for helping us think more deeply about these important issues.

-Christopher Shainin, Executive Director

The exercises felt relevant to the staff – it seemed like a conversation about the entry way needed to happen. Everyone felt it was a productive discussion! It was decided that our next step should be to focus on key areas of the museum, e.g. having an inclusive welcoming area. Staff valued the opportunity to share ideas collectively and to work in a creative way. Thanks for leading such a great exercise!

-Jasmine Valandani, Education Director

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