Reflecting on AAM

Last Wednesday was a busy day for Incluseum folks! Margaret Middleton, Porchia Moore, and I (Rose) gave a presentation at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual meeting in Atlanta entitled “Using our Words: Inclusive Language and Social Value”. That same day, Aletheia delivered a lightning talk at the Seattle Cultural Congress on the Incluseum and how technology can be used to advance community in arts organizations. In this blogpost, Margaret, Porchia, and I discuss in a Q&A format our AAM session and our decision to scrap our initial agenda two hours prior to presenting–a wild idea indeed, but one that allowed us to be responsive to what we’d witnessed throughout the conference: coded use of language and micro and overt aggressions through language use. We traded a formal presentation format for a more dynamic one that allowed attendees to be active participants who, in small working groups, (1) critically assessed words that had gotten tossed around throughout the conference and (2) co-generated more robust understandings of how these words could be used. You can also read a Twitter recap of the session here and access our handout here (last link on the page).

Why did you want to scrap the original agenda and start over?

Margaret: After spending the conference sitting in on sessions and participating in conversations about social value, it was pretty apparent to us that some of the words that were being used were coded words- “community”, “underserved”, even words like “invitation” were used in unintentionally othering, alienating ways. We wanted to address that head on. It was a little scary to scrap everything and write a new agenda, but we agreed that our session would be even more relevant if we chose to be responsive. Basically we were modeling the way we think museums should be.

Rose: Exactly, we talk a lot about museums being responsive…so we essentially acted on what we would like to see more of. Because our session was on inclusive language, we were well poised to take a stand and say “hey, if these are the words we want to use, let’s make sure we’re clear about what we’re saying!” The words participants critically assessed included “inclusion”, “diversity”, “community”, and “family friendly”. These words were interrogated through questions such as: How do you use this word? How do you use it in your department? How do you use it in your museum? What opportunities and constraints does your use of this word presents?

Porchia: One of the things that I have come to understand is that genuine growth and learning arrives as the result of active listening. I think that the three of us were really engaged in active listening during AAM; particularly in the rogue sessions. We not only heard, but felt the need to respond in an immediate fashion to the many points raised in these important conversations. We also felt  an urgent desire to engage in an open dialogue with participants in our session on how many of those points were directly related to language. We scrapped our plans because it was the responsive and appropriate reaction, and I thank you Rose for your courageous leadership to be willing to ask us to regroup as an opportunity for us to put into immediate praxis what we were all kind of learning and vibing off of–that was so great! I think we all agreed rather simultaneously that if these important talks were going to continue, we needed to be clear on how the language we use can be coded and exclusive. We did well to affirm the very thing that we profess to want to initiate; that is real change for real inclusion.

Why are you passionate about inclusive language?

M: I’m a designer and when I design experiences I am always thinking about the user, who in museums is the visitor. We like to say good design is invisible. It’s like a good paint job- you don’t notice the way paint is put on a wall unless there are drips or missing patches. That’s the way language is in a museum. As soon as visitors start noticing language choices, it’s a sign that those choices are probably grating or dissonant to the user. For example, if the museum has a label that assumes that the museum visitor has a backyard at home or membership forms that assume they have a mom and a dad. It makes for an uncomfortable user experience and I try to avoid that. I am always looking for ways to make my museum more welcoming.

R: I think words have a lot of power and they can either include or exclude people, like Margaret is saying. Although this often happens unintentionally, I think we need to try to be as precise and critical as possible about the words we use, especially as they pertain to people. The word “underserved”, for example, is one that gets used alot, but that is very damaging; it implies deficiency…who wants to be labeled “underserved”? This is an example of how words we choose can frame people and their situations negatively, which then serves to perpetuate power asymmetries and oppression–a cycle to be broken! The Incluseum used the reality of the power embedded in words for its digital exhibition last year called The Power of Labeling, check it out!

P: Well, I am a poet and writer and I used to be the Director of a Creative Writing program so words are a personal life force. The mechanics of language are vital to comprehension and especially necessary for the execution of an idea. We are working for the first time, in many ways, to create change in museums regarding inclusion and I truly believe that this careful attention to even the language in which we do so is so very important. So, when I continuously hear words being used like “communities” and “invitation” and divisive pronouns such as “they” (vs. “us”) are being used; I lean in and take note of the ways in which we frame not only these important conversations but our awareness of the power of language to be, as Rose said, oppressive and binding. You both know my stance on the term, “diversity” (“The Danger of the D Word”). Inclusive language is an opportunity to at once exact an awareness of a lived experience, speak to intersectionality and equalize power. One of the mind blowing aspects about the work that we are doing is that we are still trying to make real inroads fifteen and twenty years after these same subjects were addressed and stated as institutional values within AAM!

What surprised you about the conversations that happened in the session?

M: I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to discuss style guides in a way that felt concrete and actionable. I’m glad folks found the Family-Inclusive Language chart applicable to other terms like “diversity” and “inclusion”.

R: I’m not surprised people want to use the Family-Inclusive Language chart in their museum, Margaret, you did such a nice job designing it and breaking down the concept of “family-friendly”! 😉 I guess I was pleasantly surprised to see how willing people were to open up to one another. These conversations are not easy ones to have.

P: I think the sheer willingness of our participants to truly dig in and dig DEEP–like right out of the gate–that was awesome! I think what surprised and delighted me was, again, how our session really aligned with an infinite number of goals, aspirations, objectives, and conversations we had throughout AAM and how at its core, the conference theme, was so timely and relevant to our goals for being mindful about inclusive language. It was great to see how many participants were truly excited and drawn to the Family-Inclusive Language chart that you so beautifully designed, Margaret! I think it speaks to a real need for museum professionals to have great tools and resources available.

What were the highlights of the discussion for you?

M: I loved it when Toni Wynn said, “It’s not ‘THE community’ it’s ‘community’.” For me, this really underlined the fact that communities are not monoliths. We had some really thoughtful, awesome people in the room for our discussion. I learned a lot from our participants.

R: One group talked about “convenient exclusion”, meaning that, at times, museums intentionally fail to be inclusive out of convenience, because exclusion is easier than inclusion. I appreciated that remark/reality check.

P: Yes, Margaret! That was a pivotal moment for me too. As well as your breaking down your position on our use of the phrase, “The Gay Community” and the need to be mindful about the varying ways that even this seemingly innocuous phrase creates a monolithic view of the LGBTQI experience. I loved that you advocated for “communities” instead. I would also have to say that the actual will to change in the room was palpable and like a lightning rod for transformation throughout the conference and our discussion. I would add to this that one of my pet peeves is how institutions attempt engagement with African-Americans by courting “The Black Church” as if “The Black Church” is where all African-Americans enter into their communities. This is why your point, Margaret, about “Communities” was so important. African-Americans are not a monolithic community as well. We have to think about what “partnership” means and how many times “partnership” is aligned with respectability politics and groups who have been identified as possessing “good” or “acceptable” qualities.

What did we not have a chance to cover that you would’ve wanted to add?

M: If there had been more time, I would have loved to have heard more from Porchia about critical assessment and how we can use it in our museums.

R: I think I would have began the activity by asking participants to think of an unpleasant word or label, even a seemingly innocuous one, that has been applied to them to illustrate how words we take for granted in museums can be perceived as hurtful and push people away.

P: I would have loved to have had more time to do more group sharing and more activities. I would have also liked to hear from the participants about what is working and not working at their institutions.

What kinds of motion or actions are you looking forward to seeing moving toward post conference?

M: Several participants told me they were looking forward to analyzing the words we discussed using the format of the Family-Inclusive Language Chart. I can’t wait to hear how those conversations go, what they learn, and how it affects their institutions.

R: I would like to see more people come together on these kind of issues and work together towards meaningful change. It struck me throughout the conference how many people see transformative inclusion as something to do alone (“how can I do inclusion work”, “what can I do”). While transformative inclusion requires personal work, I also believe it calls us to connect more with one another… working alone, disconnected won’t create the change we want to see. So I’m looking forward to keep mobilizing people and encouraging people to mobilize around these issues.

P: I am looking forward to seeing the actual change occur because let’s face it–we are passionate about museums! And, in creating more tools and resources with you both and seeing how people take these conversation.

* * * *

Did you participate in the session? What were the highlights for you? What actions do you look forward taking?


  1. I wasn’t at AAM but followed the tweets from your session with interest. Thanks very much for posting this!

  2. Wish I had been at AAM for this session, it sounds like it was really valuable. If you do hear from folks who expand on your “family-friendly” chart, I hope you’ll share some of those with us as well. I know there are a lot of people looking for ways to start this kind of conversation with their colleagues and staff.

  3. Thanks for the shoutout! I could’ve stayed in the session all day. You all provided such a great service, “officially” launching a critical professional discussion that will have seismic effects. One thought: I believe Judy Rand’s term was “convenient bias.”

  4. Yes, “convenient bias”! Thanks for addressing that.

  5. C. Shellman · · Reply

    This was an exceptional session. The handouts describing the value of using inclusive language were helpful.

  6. […] for their coded and sometimes offensive meanings.  The session is summarized on a recent Incluseum post.  We need much more discussion on this sensitive topic, but at least it has come out into the […]

  7. […] Greenberg’s MuseumNext post, Porchia Moore’s Danger of the D Word post, or last year’s 2015 AAM Session reflection all about the meanings of words we use to talk about […]

  8. […] in line with many others we’ve been publishing lately about the power of words (see here and here for examples). Thanks, […]

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