Why Think about Equity and Museums?

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 again 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 second in a three-part installment (read her first post here), so be sure to check back in to hear more from Emily! –Rose

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I work on questions of equity and social justice in science engagement, particularly through access to and use of science museums and science centres. In the second of three posts (read the first post here) about what my research means for equity and museums I wanted to explain a bit about why I do this kind of research, not least because I am often asked about my reasons.

Questions usually follow one of two patterns (or if I’m really lucky – both!). Although when written down the questions read like straw-man arguments, please bear with me because I can only assure you that I get asked them regularly. Question A tends to be along the lines of ‘why do you do such research as a White, relatively middle-class woman’. Answer: because I think it’s the most important issue facing museums & science and I couldn’t imagine ignoring it. Question B is typically something like ‘but everything is fine, why are you making such a fuss’. Answer: in (very) short, because my research shows how and where things are not ‘fine’ and figuring out what doesn’t work is surely a crucial step towards making things better (read more about me research here and here). A longer answer to question B, in case it’s helpful for other people’s arguments, thoughts or counter-arguments, goes like this….

Part one: Knowledge is power.Knowledge is a valuable resource in our societies. Access to information, learning resources, questioning, political voice and being able to enjoy knowledge is therefore important for everyone. (You could replace ‘knowledge’ in this sentence with other things depending on your focus, such as ‘science’ or ‘music’ or ‘history’ or ‘visual arts’ and so on).

Part two: Representation matters. If museums and similar institutions are valuable resources for our societies, telling important stories through objects, programmes, exhibits and so on, then those stories reflect how we see ourselves, how we construct knowledge, power and relevance. Designing stories where some people are ‘in’ while others are firmly ‘out’, ‘other’ or ‘invisible’ is a form of oppression. So representation matters in terms of building a sense of who matters, whose knowledge matters, whose stories matter (and so on) in our societies.

Part three: Social justice. Access and inclusion are therefore an important part of an equitable society. I don’t want to force anyone to go to a science museum, art gallery, science festival or after-school club. But I do want people to be able to make that choice on a level playing field.

What my research shows (here and here) is how uneven that playing field is right now for certain people. Science museums and science centres are not equally accessible for everyone, the advantage some and disadvantage others. This raises crucial questions about their roles in our societies (not least how exclusion currently operates) and what we can do to improve the situation. If we don’t address these questions, through research, through practice, through whatever other means we have at our disposal, I believe we are complicit in social injustice and oppression.

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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.

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2 comments

  1. […] to inclusion in her first post and exploring what an equity lens can add to museum practice in her second post, Emily’s third post reminds us that authentic inclusion will require that we unsettle […]

  2. […] installment, so be sure to check back in to hear more from Emily! –Rose (Update: Access Part II and Part […]

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