Challenging Oppression in Museums

This week, we feature Emily Dawson’s third and final blogpost exploring how exclusion is manifested and perpetuated 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 third post reminds us that authentic inclusion will require that we unsettle the assumptions we hold about how and why we do the work we do. This piece adds to our ongoing discussion on power and oppression that we will keep building on (read more here and here). Thanks to Emily for sharing her work and insight with us! –Rose

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One particularly frustrating dilemma at the heart of understanding social exclusion in science museums for me is how museums appear to remain an exclusive realm of practice when practitioners, policy-makers and researchers have worked hard for several decades to address these issues. While pockets of inclusive practice exist, across the broader spectrum, most visitors still come from a socially narrow group and exclusion is often only talked about in terms of barriers.

Large-scale studies from the UK, USA, Europe and the OECD suggest that visiting science museums is socially stratified, with visitors tending to be more socially advantaged. To map that pattern the other way around, data suggest older people, poorer people, people from minority-ethnic groups and people living in rural areas, are unlikely to visit science museums. This means that exclusion from science museums is hierarchical, because it reflects a pattern of social disadvantage and is intersectional, because those disadvantages can overlap to make access hard for some people in more than one way.

Data on who does and does not visit science museums is of course not new. What’s more, as an ex-museum practitioner, I know you don’t necessarily need huge piles of data to look across a gallery and suspect your visitor patterns might be skewed. What does it take then to be able to develop more inclusive museum practices? In a study I worked on as a post-doctoral researcher, we found that despite interviewed practitioners mentioning equity concerns, it seemed hard to make a difference in visitor patterns.

I have started to think about the idea of social justice and oppression to understand the interplay of personal agency, intentions and choices against the larger institutional and social structures in preserving inequitable practices. I especially like how Iris Young described oppression, she wrote:

oppression [also] refers to systematic constraints on groups that are not necessarily the result of the intentions of a tyrant. Oppression in this sense is structural, rather than the result of a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules. (Young, p.41, 1990)

I think this way of understanding oppression is helpful for thinking about all the little decisions involved in day-to-day practices and the assumptions they include. For example, the research I did as part of my PhD (accessible here and here) found people from minority-ethnic, socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds in London felt excluded from science museums because they didn’t ‘fit’ with the institutions assumptions about who visitors were and what they could do.

How can we challenge and change the assumptions that lead to exclusion? Amongst other things, I’ve found that a critical, questioning approach to the kinds of assumptions that get woven into institutional practices can help to make museums more inclusive. Here are some of the questions that came from my work on what inclusive practice could look like (you can read more about that here and here):

  • What does uneven access look like in a specific museum? (Who visits and who doesn’t, who would never expect to visit & why not? How is access marked by race/ethnicity, gender, class/income, age and their overlaps?)
  • Whose stories are told and how are they told?
  • How can the ‘rules of the game’ be opened up to include a more diverse, more inclusive set of knowledges, practices and people?
  • What would need to happen for diversity to be recognised, respected and represented in a specific museum? (Staff & trustee recruitment, language use & translation, examining how people are represented through exhibits, shops, languages, images, pronouns, the hidden and obvious costs of visits)

Challenging ingrained assumptions and structural oppression is not easy and reimagining museums as inclusive spaces requires significant time, energy and commitment. To that end I know this list is only a little slice of what developing more inclusive museum practices could involve. I hope however, that in writing these thoughts down they might start a conversation, or make someone think twice about the question “why are you doing that exhibit like that”, when about to answer: “because that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

What do you think? What would you add to the above list?

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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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One comment

  1. […] 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) […]

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