Envisioning Museums as Social and Inclusive Spaces

Have you ever wandered into a museum or a historical site and wondered why there were intimate objects from foreign countries on display? Have you ever read a museum label and questioned its relevance to the piece, or been astounded by the lack of information the label presented about the visual object in front of you? These were some of the discussion points on Wednesday, January 30 during the “Envisioning Thriving Museums” museum conversation series. The event brought together staff from the Longyear Museum of Anthropology and the Picker Art Gallery, along with students and Colgate faculty interested in the practice of decolonizing museums.

Today, “decolonizing” museums is one of the most discussed and contested topics among museum professionals; the act aims to create more inclusive and representative museum spaces, as well as to hold museums accountable for the objects they collect, trade and display. As Colgate considers the future of its museums on campus and their position within the curriculum and the larger Colgate experience, the discussion came at an opportune time. In recent years, Colgate has begun to have these challenging conversations among students, faculty and staff about what it means to have thriving, inclusive and socially conscious museums on campus.

The facilitators of the discussion, Curator of the Picker Art Gallery Nick West and Curator of the Longyear Museum of Anthropology Christy DeLair, encouraged broad-based discussion and interdisciplinary thinking about museum spaces at Colgate and around the world. West and DeLair began by discussing the Mellon Foundation Report for Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey from the years 2015-2018. Students and staff discussed the unfortunate trends the report showed regarding the diversity in the staffing of U.S. art museums, namely that 88 percent of the art museum spaces in the survey continue to be dominated by white educators, curators and directors. The charts showed marginal increases in diversity of race and ethnicity of diverse employees in art museums over this time period, and the hiring of people of color in art museums has also slightly increased.

“It is important to honor what you are representing and display a more broad-based narrative,” Dayna Campbell, Outreach and Program Coordinator at the ALANA Cultural Center, said of museum spaces.

The discussion quickly took off, with students and faculty discussing new perspectives on the information that museums can provide when they represent objects and items. West next picked up on the importance of relevance and purpose in museum spaces; the key point of relevance is that it can bring visitors in if they feel that their stories are being told and shared in a meaningful way. Further challenges to accessibility, such as location and entrance fees to museums, matter in the debate of relevance as well.

The next part of the discussion centered on the nature of museums themselves. Students discussed their perceptions of museums as places that are stagnant or stuck in the past, and expressed their feelings that museum spaces today lack the relevance necessary to engage with a diverse audience in a meaningful way. The curators of the Picker and the Longyear tried to emphasize the dynamism of museum environments of recent years that have aimed to engage a broader base of communities and audiences. The open conversation on what museums can and should do to address colonial legacies, create cultures of inclusion, facilitate different ways of knowing and advance a social justice agenda encouraged participation from many of the students present. Following the discussion, the facilitators led a visioning exercise on the progression of new museum spaces and asked how members of our community want to see the Longyear and the Picker approach the issues that were raised. The outcome was a draft list of recommendations to consider as our institution thinks about the future of its museums.

Senior Isaiah Keyes reflected on the various aspects of the discussion.

“I thought it was a refreshingly honest conversation about how to make academic spaces accessible. Museums bear a mantle of authority; they have an obligation to portray an accurate narrative because of that,” Keyes said.

The “Envisioning Thriving Museums” discussion series will continue throughout the semester, with events occurring each month. February will center on communities, March will discuss digital futures and April will include discussions on museums advancing beyond repatriation of their items and collections.

Contact Caylea Barone at [email protected].