Museums and the Reproduction of Disadvantage

Most of us are well aware that there are a number of barriers to visiting and feeling welcomed in museums. Many of these barriers, however, might be invisible to us as they are deeply rooted in the Western, Euro-centric values and ways-of-being our museums are founded on. Moreover, as staff and community members, we might have very little contact with those who face these barriers, which makes addressing these barriers very hard. This week, we hear from Emily Dawson,Lecturer at University College London who worked with 4 different community groups underrepresented in visitor demographics. Her research sheds light on the many barriers that exist to museum visitation and participation. This post in the first in a three-part installment, so be sure to check back in to hear more from Emily! –Rose (Update: Access Part II and Part III)

* * * *

Who are museums for? This is the question I’ve been obsessed with across all the research projects I’ve worked on (you can read a couple examples here and here). Although most museums are explicitly ‘public’ institutions, I’ve explored how museums are more exclusive than many people would like them to be. As a museum practitioner turned researcher, I felt happy about the reams of research about the benefits of visiting museums and participating in museum programmes or activities. If these studies were true, then it seemed to me that understanding how to make museums more inclusive was an important thing to research.

I started my PhD research back in 2007 trying to explore whether museums were exclusive fields of practice and if so, how that exclusion arose. Somewhat naively I expected to find a few simple ways to improve these wonderful institutions. I have to warn you though, I found exclusion was more embedded and more troubling than I had ever anticipated. If you are hoping to find a quick ‘how to’ checklist for making museums inclusive, this might not be the blog post for you!

Through my PhD I pursued a research ‘rabbit-hole’ that would see me babysitting research participants’ kids, embarking on a series of museum and science centre visits, spending almost two years of weekends at community group lunches, dances, festivals and other meetings and analysing data that made me almost weep with frustration. From this work, I found a complex system of social exclusion operating between people from minority-ethnic, socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds on the one hand and science museums and science centres on the other.

I worked with four grass-roots community groups of adults from minority-ethnic backgrounds (a self-described Sierra Leonean group, a Somali group, a Latin American group and an Asian group), living in poverty in a neighbourhood in central London. They found the idea of visiting science museums, science centres or other ‘informal’ science spaces to be prohibitively expensive (though entry was free), irrelevant to their interests, their families, friends and communities (even for those who described science as a hobby) and, not for them. As Fatimata, a woman in her mid 20s from the Sierra Leonean group put it:

If you ask me, “Fatimata are you going to come down [to a science center/museum],” I’ll tell you “No, there’s not going to be anyone like me there, what’s wrong with you” (laughter from Fatimata and group), but that’s my perception of how I think about things.

In other words, Fatimata found it laughable that she would ever visit a museum or science centre, on account of the social distance she felt between herself, her community and imagined museum visitors. What’s more, museums and science centres have been seen as part of a leisure industry. Participants did not have ‘free time’, they worked round the clock shifts, often in exploitative jobs as new and/or illegal migrants. Museums were inaccessible and unimaginable.

All the participants’ negative expectations were borne out in the museum practices they experienced within the project. For instance, participants found shops, cafes, transport and ‘special’ exhibitions shockingly expensive. For example, Flor & Sofia, sisters in their early 20s from the Latin American group, discussed the effects of ‘hidden costs’ at length, saying:

Sofia: I think people with a higher income as well would be more likely to go,

Flor: what do you mean?

Sofia: ‘cos having a trip out for a day costs a lot more money than you kind of think, even if it’s say like initially free to get in, you’re talking travel, food costs, going into the gift shop, all of that, so I think as well people who’ve got higher incomes it’s not really an issue, whereas for other people, “oh well, there’s however many of us, that’s going to add up”

Another Latin American group member later commented on how embarrassed she had been not to be able to buy her youngest child a toy from the gift shop because it was too expensive, saying “you need to have enough cash in your pocket”.

Another factor that left participants feeling excluded from the museums & science centre they visited came down to not seeing themselves, their communities, languages, stories or interests represented. Although everyone could speak enough English to talk to me (because believe me my Temne is not that good!) they encountered no translation into other languages, which signalled to them these spaces were not for ‘other’ people. As Idyl from the Somali group argued later, although the science centre she visited said it was “open to everyone” she found the lack of translation to any other language left her feeling that “it’s not designed for us”. Idyl even went as far as suggesting she would not mind missing her own language, but had expected to see international languages such as Arabic, as a sign of welcome and inclusion.

As well as language issues, the people represented in exhibits, the stories told, the images used and, as participants also noted, in terms staff and other visitors, were White and Eurocentric. Alejandro from the Latin American group was so concerned by the lack of visitors and staff from his community that even months later, he kept repeating it; “I just don’t see Latin families there”.

Ultimately people from all four community groups concluded the museums were marked by privilege and exclusion such that they felt unwelcome and found little of relevance to themselves or their communities. I began to understand this pattern as a negative cycle where experience and expectation went hand in hand to limit access to valuable social, cultural and educational resources, such as museums and science centres.

This is the framework I came up with for understanding how participants were excluded from museums & science centres:

  1. Inaccessible infrastructure:
    • Physical access: Participants were excluded from museum marketing, knew nothing about the institutions, how to get there, or that the places they visited were free to enter. Participants were told off by security guards. Participants were blocked out from special exhibits, cafes and shops by costs. Participants could not access the space due to working practices with little or no ‘free’ time.
    • Redistribution of power: Participants saw no staff members from their communities and expected to be left out of decisions about the museums.
  2. Museum/science centre literacy:
    • Conceptual access: Participants were unable to read museum texts, signs, guides or, in some cases, ask for help. The combination of English language and scientific language left participants lost and confused at exhibits. Participants also felt they did not know the ‘rules of the game’ or what might constitute the ‘right’ kinds of behaviours.
  3. Community acceptance:
    •  Participants did not feel welcome and did not feel that the museums/science centres were relevant to themselves or their communities. Community acceptance is multidimensional and requires change in more than one direction. However, for patterns of participation to change, institutions may have to commit to developing more inclusive practices.

Although the nice thing about a framework about exclusion is that you can turn it around to make a framework for thinking about what inclusive practice would involved my research found issues of exclusion were entrenched. What I found particularly shocking was that community participants were disadvantaged by the museum visits. Rather than finding a ‘way in’ to science through the museums, their experiences left them ‘othered’ and feeling that their languages, knowledges and communities did not count. From this perspective, not visiting museums where your culture, background, community and experiences are rendered invisible and irrelevant starts to seem like a valuable form of resistance to dominant cultural practices. In other words, I found social disadvantage was being reproduced by actually visiting museums, as well as not visiting them. Understanding social inclusion in museums and science centres therefore requires more than thinking about ways to get people inside these buildings, but to make them feel welcome and empowered.

My question then for researchers, practitioners and policy-makers still invested in making museums more inclusive is: how can we dismantle and reconstruct museums so that they can disrupt the reproduction of social disadvantages rather than reproducing them?

* * * *

Emily Dawson is a Lecturer at University College London. Her research explores how people engage with science, with an emphasis on equity, in particular the construction of publics and ‘non’ publics for science, and the role of privilege in such processes. In other words, why do some people visit science museums while others do not? Her current projects include ‘Equity pathways’ and ‘Enterprising Science’. ‘Equity pathways‘, one of the Science Learning + grants from the Welcome Trust and US National Science Foundation, is a research & practice project involving partners from academia, zoos, aquaria, museums, science centres, science media & STEM clubs. ‘Enterprising Science’ is a research and practice collaboration between King’s College London and the National Museum of Science & Industry group. You can find out more about Emily’s work here, here and at @emilyadawson.


  1. Linda Barron · · Reply

    Thank you for sharing. We have this same issue in libraries too.
    I am very interested in exploring your framework further
    Linda Barron | Executive Manager | Community Engagement
    State Library of Queensland | PO Box 3488 | South Brisbane 4101
    t +61 7 3840 7797 | f +61 7 3840 7795 | e |
    Find me on: linkedin | Twitter lindaxbarron

  2. emilydawson2015 · · Reply

    Hi Linda, I’m glad it struck a chord. I made a framework for ‘inclusive informal learning’ here: (it should be open access, let me know if you want me to send the pdf). You might have to adapt it a bit for libraries, but issues like infrastructure access, multiple literacies & two-way community acceptance could be helpful. Let me know how you get on & good luck! Cheers, emily

  3. So glad to see your work getting wider attention, Emily. I read your paper ‘Not Designed for Us” and have been recommending it. I think we are talking about similar phenomena when you talk about lack of equity and I talk about lack of empathy in museums. Thanks Inclusem!

  4. […] The Incluseum: Museums and the Reproduction of Disadvantage […]

  5. […] and participation. This post in the second in a three-part installment (read her first post here), so be sure to check back in to hear more from Emily! […]

  6. thank you

  7. […] to be gaining more attention in museum discussions.  Emily Dawson is in the midst of publishing an informative series of essays about inclusion over at The Incluseum.  Suse Cairns and the Museum Computer Network planning committee have announced that Invisible […]

  8. […] in museums. After examining how different groups experience barriers to inclusion in her first post and exploring what an equity lens can add to museum practice in her second post, Emily’s […]

  9. emilydawson2015 · · Reply

    Here’s a comment a colleague in the US emailed me and agreed to share here (I wanted to share it because I thought it was really interesting & is something that didn’t come up in my work, but I can see how it could have!)

    “Nice work! It really hits the nail on the head in a lot of ways. One thing I noticed that might be missing, although it might be from the perspective of the continents of the Americas, is that there is a big bold reason why I know that many indigenous peoples, specifically North American Indians, Central American an, South American and Pacific Island peoples don’t go near museums is because they are institutions which have been profiting and engaging in ongoing cultural theft. Hundreds of thousands of bodies and bones (which in reality are ancestors and family of people still walking the streets), and hundreds of thousands of sacred and cultural objects are housed in these museums and even put on display. The last half century has seen thousands of inquiries and requests for the returns of these objects and ancestors, yet in most of the cases these requests have gone unfulfilled.

    I know that many indigenous peoples of this continent and the islands see these museums not as places that don’t make efforts to include their culture, but include their cultures much to their distress and without their permission! There is a huge problem in this area because many of these institutions (At least in the Americas) are looked at not as non-inclusive or even exclusionary, however are looked at instead as ongoing perpetrators of theft, robbery, genocide, and cultural genocide. Whether the language and vocabulary of colonization and genocide have changed or not in how these events are talked about and taught today is simply a matter of discourse and vocabulary. It does not change these museums history, nor even if we could start all over today does it change the fact that these museums are still not effectively instituting change other than the words or the signs on these stolen objects. Whether the signs read in English or Spanish, Navajo or Hawaiian, whether the person giving the tour is a person of color or part of the culture or not, whether these institutions charge or have free entry, Whether the sandwiches are $10 or free, who really wants to go see their family members and cultures stolen belongings on display”

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Emily, and thanks to your connection for being willing to share this comment. This is a very good point: when we speak of “inclusion”, we refer to including people into an institutional structure that has already been set. How different would “museums” look if the process of determining what these institutions are would have included those we consider today to be “excluded”?

  10. […] first step towards breaking down the museum’s ‘reproduction of disadvantage’ (see Emily Dawson’s work). If community members can feel comfortable and welcome within your museum’s ‘radius,’ […]

  11. […] and know museums need to deal with them. Just last month, the Incluseum featured the research of Emily Dawson who pointed out the myriad of ways in which museums act as exclusive spaces for people from ethnic […]

  12. […] are unable or unwilling to pay entry fees due to tight budgets or a perception that museums are inherently exclusive and elitist. Many in the museum industry are working hard to address these issues and ensure that people of all […]

  13. […] Ultimately, this is the fault of the arts and heritage industry rather than the public at large. If a world-class museum such as SAMA could be perceived as potentially distressing for a family of white, middle-class, English-speaking, cisgender, university-educated North Americans (groups towards whom museums have traditionally catered), how could such places possibly seem inclusive to those from minority or marginalized communities? […]

  14. […] understand the people, understand where they are coming from. And that means ALL the people. In a Incluseum blog post, Emily Dawson wrote about research she did involving museums and low-income minority groups which […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: