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Film: Institutionalising Inclusivity in Museums

This presentation on Institutionalising Inclusivity in Museums was given at MuseumNext Indianapolis on 26th Septemeber 2015, by Monica O. Montgomery, Director, Latimer Historic House Museum and Masum Momaya, Curator, Smithsonian Institution. The presenters discuss lessons learned and exemplary practices from their own work in collections, education, exhibitions and public programs and those of museum around the country.

Monica: Okay. We want to make sure everyone is awake and alive and ready for what we have to say. Clap it up for yourselves. Alright! I can’t help … the preschool teacher in me has to do this. If you can hear my voice, clap once, snap twice, deep breath. That felt good. Alright, I’m going to turn it over to Masum.

Masum: Okay, that deep breath was for two more. We are the second to last presentation and then we have to take a break and have some food and drink. My name is Masum Momaya and I’m here with Monica Montgomery. I’m a curator at the part of the Smithsonian called ‘The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Centre’ and Monica wears a number of hats, including being the founding director of the Museum of Impact, which she’ll talk about.

The collaboration that we’re presenting [signal loss]. One of our main goals is really to talk about institutionalising inclusivity. Many of the examples that we have heard about in the course of our own work tend to be one-off examples – a specific project or an exhibition or a public programme that targets a specific community and it’s sort of a one and done type of situation and so we really wanted to comb through our own experiences and those around the country and around the world to really show things that are trying to make a more sustainable impact in terms of inclusivity so what we’re going to present for you today is ten ways to institutionalise inclusivity.

Monica: Thank you, Masum. The first way to institutionalise inclusivity is to acknowledge the relationship between social justice and museum labour. As Masum mentioned, we connected around a movement called ‘Museum Workers Speak’ which is gaining traction, and I’ll tell you more about it. The Museum Workers Speak group feels that in order to turn the social justice lens inward we have to examine museum labour and recognise the need to find ways to help empower a broad community of voices speak out. Museum worker conversations are facilitated and populated by us, the museum workers. [Lost signal] they believe on the status of equity and inclusion.

Museums aren’t just in a position to enact social justice until we clean up our own houses, so some things to consider when house cleaning. Thinking about wage disparity especially along the lines of gender and race, around non-living wage work, favouring the inclusions of those with economic privilege, grad school mills where we have high qualifications for low wage positions, and race and gender disparity in museum workplaces.

This is an intersectional issue, so to speak about labour in museums is to engage in a dialogue around class, race and gender in museums. If we truly believe the power of cultural institutions to impact communities and engage authentically with social justice issues, if we believe museums have the capacity to bring about social change, we have to improve our cultural awareness and transform the world so that our internal practices have an impact according to the changes we seek.

The second way to institutionalise inclusivity is to engage the voices of museum workers at all levels to cultivate change so before The Museum Workers Speak was this conversation about social justice in museums dominated by a handful of museum leaders, but today a wider community of museum workers finally have a platform to speak out. The value of Museum Workers Speak is that it amplifies the expertise and experience held by everyday workers like us, those who didn’t have a platform otherwise to share their perspectives.

Sometimes the rank and file workers don’t have access to funding to attend conferences like this or AAM, or even publication opportunities, but they can participate and field [unintelligible] conversations and they know their job. They have experience and expertise that is untapped. There’s an urgent need for all of us to create these forums that are open and public, where everyone can take part in the conversation and have their voices heard. We’re trying to break the silence and taboo about these issues of wages, museums and labour, and empower museum workers to shift power from programme conversations online, to larger conversations within institutions.

The Museum Workers Speak Chat, which is hashtag Museum Workers Speak, and it happens every first Wednesday, we call it worker Wednesdays, it positions us as authorities and experts on museum labour, and we’re talking about labour issues but usually talking about that above a whisper is risky. People don’t like that kind of talk. But Twitter allows for these workers and maybe even co-workers to have frank conversations about the realities of museum labour.

We’re here, turning a moment into a movement, moving from the initial rogue session at AAM and creating an on-going dialogue that works to shift the power dynamics in the field. We’re also engaging live through regional conversations. We’ve hosted regular convenings in DC, Chicago and Boston, we have upcoming events in New York and the Bay area and we’re always looking for collaborators to start up things throughout North America and beyond, in your town, at your institution.

Examples of current projects are anonymous salary surveys and events like the [Menturothon] happening at the New York chapter, which I chair, where we’re helping career changes, unemployed students, people get a foot in the arts and culture field and level up. The only true inclusive dialogue is framed to benefit the greatest swathe of people and that’s what generates successful strategies.

So there’s a call to action we’re asking. If you live in or near any of the cities we’re operating in, we ask you to chime in on the Museum Workers Speak conversations online and offline and get involved. It’s your opportunity for grassroots collaboration with your colleagues across all levels and our next tweet chat is October 7th at 2pm and 8pm. Back to Masum.

Masum: So, just as it’s important for us to look inward, we also need to do the work to institutionalise inclusivity with the communities that we work with. And the next example that I’m going to share comes from the Oakland Museum of California which recently debuted an exhibition called ‘Pacific Worlds’ and they worked really closely in concert with the Pacific islander communities in the Bay area, from conceptualisation to closing, in terms of this exhibition starting the concept and framing.

Those of you who’ve done work with communities oftentimes who haven’t seen themselves represented in museums or who’ve seen themselves represented in ways that they don’t feel are authentic, have a lot of strong opinions and voices about how their story should be framed, so the Oakland Museum of California created a taskforce to be able to talk about what this exhibition could and would look like. They had had a long history of collecting things from the Pacific but they hadn’t necessarily worked with local communities in the process of interpretation so one of the things that was a cornerstone of putting this together was actually involving communities in the interpretation of artefacts as experts alongside the curators.

They also involved community members as docents in terms of writing the script of exhibition tours and they engaged artists both to create works for the exhibition, as well as to conduct workshops during the duration of the exhibition itself. These are some images from an exhibition that I curated at the Smithsonian that recently closed. It was about the Indian American immigrant experience, and one of the things that was really striking to me as someone of Indian origin growing up in the United States, is that many exhibitions about India and Indians and Indian Americans often exoticised and orientalised our culture, our history and our heritage, and I wanted to avoid that in the process of putting this exhibition together.

But I thought that a lot of the details for that were not just in kind of how labels were written, but in the design process itself so we worked really hard to be intentional about the design elements that we chose, including fonts. Oftentimes when India, for example, is written about, there’s a few, there’s a small group of fonts that are used that seem to be kind of characteristic scripts, and we really wanted to be able to veer away from that, while at the same time using fonts and elements that would credit or harken to the design elements of the cultural context itself.

We also included other elements in the galleries that were commonly found in Indian American households. These include [fallies] or steel dishes or trays that we use for eating and also in religious rituals, and we also use things like mirrors in the gallery so that when people came in, they would recognise and relate to material culture that is part of their everyday life.

This is from the trans family photo project that débuted this past summer and it was an exhibition designed primarily for children and it was the story of a family with a transgender grandmother, and in this exhibition they did a couple of things intentionally with the design. One was to hang the actual exhibition portraits at child sight level. Another one which was told to us this morning in terms of interpretation strategies and in earlier presentation, was very intentional use and explanation of pronouns and using first person voices in order to be able to represent experience, and then also there were kiosks that were created within the exhibition space that included books, stories and opportunities for people to be able to write and colour about their own family experiences.

Monica: Another way that we are institutionalising inclusivity at the Latimer House is by fingerprinting and bilingual touch points, so in my work as director, we’re trying to find through lines with the community through visitors’ mother tongue and their culture. We’re located in one of the most diverse boroughs, places in the world, Queens, New York and Flushing Queens where over 180 languages are spoken so we translate all our collateral materials into three of the languages most spoken throughout Flushing – Mandarin, Korean and Spanish.

We also use this fingerprinting paradigm where we offer visitors an opportunity to leave a mark on our space and activate objects throughout the rooms by writing their opinions on these prompt cards which you’ll see at the left. We have blank prompt cards with questions like what did you like, what didn’t you like, how do you champion social justice or confront injustice, and we let people write on them and place them wherever they want in the house, hang them on a lamp, on a window, place them on a chair.

It offers us this direct feedback loop to let us know what visitors are thinking. Those are bilinguals as well. And many of the ideas we’re piloting here emanate from the recently released book, ‘The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums’, written by Franklin Vagnone, Executive Director of Historic House Trust of New York. He has this term called ‘Museum Anarchy’, which centres around welcoming community in, bringing the museum outside of the walls, exploring narratives of other inhabitants in the life of the house, and embracing diversity to inform museum practice.

We also, at Latimer House, treat the museum like a stage so in the spring of this year as a way to cross-pollinate with other disciplines of the humanities, we connected with a local troupe of theatre thespians and some of them are also musicians and poets, so we wanted them to create this site-specific piece for the house. We gave them a set of keys and said go crazy and they did. They worked tirelessly and brilliantly within the house, coming weekly to rehearse and be with other creatives and within three months they created a piece entitled ‘The Wild Papers’ which was an interactive participatory play using the museum as a stage. Visitors started in the garden and followed the story room to room, following the actors through these different phases of life, birth, death, things that happen, new jobs, first kisses, retirement, new years, and the audience was thrilled by this experience of travelling through a historic house, reimagining it beyond what it is and seeing it as a growing organism that comes to life as people live in it.

In my work as the founding director of the Museum of Impact, which is a museum that I founded a few years ago, I saw this void of social justice minded institutions tackling contemporary issues and I’m the kind of person if I don’t see something, I’m going to start it. So I founded a grassroots mobile social justice museum after a trip, a missions trip to South Africa, and really wanted it to focus on interpreting art and activism and movements of the people, so we just wrapped our first exhibit, which was in Harlem, which was entitled ‘Movement is Rising – the Journey of Black Lives Matter’, and we’re going head on and tackling what’s happening all around us in the news and our cities, in our country.

We’re shining a light on human rights injustices, vigilantism, police brutality perpetrated against people of colour, and the community outpouring was amazing. We had several touch points where there were photo booths and dialogue prompts to engage the community in telling their story, examining their role in the movement and transforming from bystanders to upstanders to get involved. The community response – 350 people came out over a span of five days and people engaged the ways they felt most comfortable.

As you see on this slide, we have a variety of activities, from Aztec purification dances and sage burning to honour the martyrs, neighbourhood kids coming by at night to do homework, colour and make art. We had a wailing wall where people could leave their quotes, prayers, tributes, messages for the martyrs. A lot of other cool things were happening throughout this week, and what touched my heart the most is there were several Muslim persons, including the woman on the right, who came by to make salat or say prayers in this space in honour of what we were doing. The outpouring of goodwill extended to us being invited to travel to five additional cities, including Ferguson and Baltimore.

Cycling back to Latimer, at Latimer House we’re interpreting Lewis Latimer’s legacy as a draftsman, an engineer and a black inventor who was very much ahead of his time, who perfected the carbon filament for the light bulb, so a lot of times Thomas Edison gets the credit for his work but Latimer has done so much and we’re aiming to tell that story. Among other things Latimer was a renaissance man, he was a poet and so we’re looking at this seed of poetry and how he expressed himself artistically, to interpret that in a different way.

We received an [inaudible] to have two local artists do this community poetry mapping project. We had a series of poetry collection days, letting people wander our gardens, write their poems and their sonnets and be inspired by the house and throughout the house, as well as a number of other Flushing locations.

Next, we collected the poems and had them read and reported bilingually. We took those audio files and we created a hotline people – can call in to hear the poems of their neighbours and the voices of their neighbours reading their work, as well as some of Latimer’s poems. And we also had this cool light in the house, where when you turned the light on, it starts to read out the poetry that was recorded. We call it ‘The Light on Sound Poetry’ light.

And so this was a touch point that you can come in the house and experience; around the neighbourhood we had these signs posted, and just again, activating the house in new and different ways and we kicked off this project with a really big party in grand fashion, that was a story slam with assisted listening devices for deaf individuals, and a number of poets coming to perform.

Masum: Our final two examples come from the digital space. This is from the International Museum of Women, which is a digital born museum that’s now part of the global fund for women in San Francisco. I worked there as a curator between 2007 and 2009, and one of the exhibitions we worked on was an exhibition called ‘Women, Power and Politics’, and the exhibitions for this museum are a combination of curated content, crowd source content, which is then integrated into the curation, and then an on-going online community which responds to, and adds and challenges the curated content that’s presented as part of the museum.

One of the fascinating things about digital space, as we heard after lunch, is it allows for some nimbleness, some nuance and some freedom that maybe large institutions don’t have, and one of these things involves democratising digital space. In the case of the International Museum of Women, we were able to show a lot of content from places in the world where the content, in its context of origin, might be censored or may not be allowed to be shown, or may be distorted, and this includes content from women artists, filmmakers, storytellers, poets and scholars, and so these are some of the examples of the types of things that are shown in this museum.

And finally I want to talk about a project that’s on-going through the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Centre, and this is a series of Wikipedia APA editathons. As many of you know, Wikipedia is an open source and continuously growing resource for the world in terms of all kinds of information, and one of the things that those of us who work in the space of continuing to do research on Asian Pacific American history, is that there’s very little of this content that’s present on Wikipedia, so what we’ve done, actually for several years in a row, is organise a series of editathons. And we play the role of providing sources in the form of scholars, in the form of books and other documents so that institutions can convene these Wikipedia editathons in their own spaces and bring together folks from Wikipedia who do a training about how to edit, as well as people who are experienced editors to come and bring their laptops and be able to actually create content onsite.

We also provide images and references for people to be able to use, and the focus that we’ve had this particular year is on Asian Pacific American artists, so people can come and add either profiles or they can take a look at existing pages and continue to add content within those pages. We’ve been actually able to do this throughout the United States, but also other places in Asia, and our upcoming editathons are going to be in Austin and in Bangkok and so through this we’re actually extending the reach of our museum beyond the walls and beyond Washington DC.

So thank you very much. I think we’ve got about a minute for questions. Also all of our social media information is up there. Please do follow us and if you don’t get a chance to speak with us today we’re going to be around for the rest of the conference and would love to connect with you. Thank you.

This presentation on Institutionalising Inclusivity in Museums was given at MuseumNext Indianapolis on 26th Septemeber 2015, by Monica O. Montgomery, Director, Latimer Historic House Museum and Masum Momaya, Curator, Smithsonian Institution.

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