GlobeMedx Talk: Museums and Social Justice

This weekend is the GlobeMed Summit. I was invited to give a short presentation on my work in the museum field. Here are my slides and a copy of what I have to say!

I do audience research and evaluation for museums on issues of inclusion. I’ll explain the details of what that means in a little bit, but suffice it to say that it’s a weird, but completely awesome job I had no idea existed, until I was working it.

I have always been drawn to the museum world on a deep emotional level. I love their ability to bring together people from different backgrounds, make complicated ideas physical and immediate, and make people excited to explore the world around them. But while exploring different career goals in college, I went through a period where I thought, despite my love, that museums weren’t important enough. I thought because they weren’t serving an immediate human need that they were not aligned with social justice values.

I struggled with the question, “Do museums do social justice work?” After working in the field for 4 years, I can confidently say… Sometimes.

If we define social justice work in terms of its ability to disrupt systems of power that place more value over certain lives than others, museums do not always create positive impact and can, in fact, reproduce social disadvantages by marginalizing certain people’s experience and making people feel as if these public institutions are not for them.

So, what is the worst case scenario museum?

  • full of affluent, people with advanced degrees learning about things dead white men discovered, created, or looted from other countries during the colonial era
  • not responsive to the needs of their surrounding communities and don’t question their relevance
  •  not physically, culturally, or economically accessible

To their credit, museums have evolved a lot in the past decades. Here is a quick history:

  • Object-Centered: Museums as we know them today were created to protect and display objects of importance to our cultural heritage. Their primary responsibility was to the donors of objects and their attitude could be characterized as “Be grateful you get to look at our stuff.”
  • Education-Centered: After WWII museums began rethinking their relevance the public and became primarily education-driven.  While this was a huge step forward, their resources were only accessible to an educated elite and curators held more power than visitors.
  • Visitor-Centered: Since the 90s, many museums began to critically rethink their relationship, not only with their visitors, but with the public at large. They began to realize that who’s NOT coming to their museum is just as important as who IS and that their value as education centers is only worthwhile if they are accessible in every sense of the word. Power to the people.

Which brings me to this lovely quote describing the growth of community-driven museums in rural Brazil:

For the moment, in my country, [museums] are being used in a new way, as tools for self-expression, self-recognition and representation; as spaces of power negotiation among social forces; and as strategies for empowering people so that they are more able to decide their own destiny.
— Maria de Lourdes Huerta

So all of this begets the question, “what is my job exactly?”

I conduct qualitative research for museums responding to the challenges of becoming more visitor-centered and inclusive. We do 2 types of research. The first, evaluation, helps museums measure the impact of program and exhibits. The second type, audience research, helps museums understand the needs of communities they want to engage, so they can develop new experiences.

The methods we use are nothing radical. It’s a lot of observation, ethnography, interviews, focus groups, and surveys, but the insights we provide enable museums to realize their potential to organize communities, promote tolerance and awareness, and inspire people to action.

In the past years, I’ve had the opportunity to: 

  • measure a science center’s success engaging visitors from its neighboring zipcodes
  • help an art museum present the work of a contemporary Iranian artist with sensitivity to issues of representation for the Muslim community
  • investigate how intergenerational bilingual families use bilingual museums labels
  • help a natural history museum create a vision for how its Asia exhibits could be redesigned for increased relevance/sensitivity to contemporary Asian visitors.

It’s been a privilege to work with museums that are asking such thoughtful questions, but I’ve been longing to use this type of research not just to make recommendations, but produce physical outcomes. So I’m going back school for industrial design next year. Ultimately, I hope to further these ideas doing participatory design for public spaces. I’m excited to see what the future.