Discussions and debates about traditional values of equity and inclusion have increased in recent years, and participants in these discussions include professional heritage institutions, journalists of the daily press and the public through social media. Museums, as keepers of cultural stories and heritage under their auspices, are increasingly examining their role in shaping a narrative of diversity, equity and inclusion. This phenomenon is wider than Sweden, Scandinavia, and Europe. US museums, for example, are focusing on racism, gender bias, and decolonization. Many museums are acknowledging their inherent biases and working to diversify their stewardship, their stakeholders and audiences, as well as the perspectives they document and share.
The Minneapolis institute of Art (Mia) in Minnesota is a case in point. Established in 1883 when twenty-five citizens came together to bring arts into the life of their community, Mia’s history as a museum has been marked by civic involvement and cultural achievement. Mia collects art from across cultures and history, and now, more than one hundred years after its founding, cares for a collection of 90,000+ objects. Looking at Mia’s original classical façade and city location one would expect it to be a traditional cultural institution whose collections reflect all residue –colonization, gender bias, racial stereotyping–that comes with it. But as a well-established Twin Cities cultural institution, Mia has drawn on its history of civic involvement and community engagement as it dares to face new societal challenges and to create change in the arts and cultural heritage space.
Minneapolis Institute of Art’s 1915 façade designed by architects McKim, Mead & White. ©2015 Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Mia has been looking at how to respond to the inequity in American society since the 2014 police shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which brought US racial inequality into focus. The museum organized MASSAction (Museum as Site for Social Action), a multi-year initiative to ”align museums with more equitable and inclusive practices “– as an outgrowth of #museumsrespondtoFerguson. Through MASSAction convenings, participating museums realized that change begins at home through “institutional transformation, creating an inclusive culture, widening interpretation, sharing authority, decolonizing collections and the museum.”
What does such promise and engagement mean on the ground, in the everyday operations of a museum? At Mia, embracing change all around has meant creating a staff Equity Team, hiring a Diversity and Inclusion Manager, revising hiring practices, extending community engagement efforts, and exploring individuals’ roles in creating a more equitable and inclusive society. Staff are actively examining embodied racism, their inherent biases, and the impacts of operating within a ‘white supremacy culture’. The museum has joined with partners within and outside the cultural sector to create the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts (CEVA), exploring how art can “foster empathy and global awareness.” Mia’s efforts primarily focus on changing behaviors and human relationships, however the core of the museum – its collections and the associated intellectual content – is also coming under scrutiny.
A museum’s collections catalogue (ideally) documents objects’ character, provenance, history, and what qualifies something’s status as a collection object, i.e., what makes it worth preserving for the future. And each institution’s cultural baggage, be it racism, the legacy of colonization, etc., is evident in a museum’s institutional heritage-making – or in other words, its practice about collection practice. This metacultural aspect, which sheds light on a museum’s stewardship, values and perspectives, is implicit within the language and information that museums record and share.
Museum scholars know that institutional taxonomies order and shape culture, while also bordering and dividing people. Many museums in the Nordic countries and Europe still meet the challenge of equity and inclusion through their temporary exhibitions or programming. Although many museum professionals know it is not enough to address only the front-facing museum activities, few have yet taken on the mammoth challenge to dig deep into their collections and work practices. Such efforts require resources that many museums do not have – financial support to work with collections, adequate research staff for new interpretations and perspectives, stamina and time. Museums must reexamine their traditional ways of working in order to change the narrative. Frances Lloyd-Baynes, Head of Collections Information Management at Mia is taking the lead by embedding diversity and inclusion in Mia’s collections information.
Frances Lloyd-Baynes, Head of Collections Information Management, Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo: Frances Lloyd-Baynes
Lloyd-Baynes is currently leading a working group and codifying why, what and how Mia will document the gender and ethnicity of its creators. Like many museums, Mia has historically captured little personal artist data, but then most of its artists fit ‘the norm’: they are white, male and western or else unknown but assumed to be female, e.g. textile and other decorative artists, particularly from non-western cultures. Even as awareness has grown about the biases in collections, little change occurred in practice. Capturing gender and ethnicity data has remained loaded with meaning and many (most?) museums have avoided it rather than make a misstep. The result is collections that cannot be easily understood or explored based on the gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., of its makers. In a globally connected world, this status quo is no longer acceptable.
Capturing such data seems straightforward but requires thoughtfulness and needs to be part of a larger process. Lloyd-Baynes details the questions that Mia’s working group is facing in her recent article “Documenting Diversity.” In this article, Lloyd-Baynes points out an emerging cultural landscape, which museums must learn how to navigate: in order to reflect society, museums must give up their assumed authority, their ‘authoritative voice’, and share some of their power.
From my own perspective as an ethnologist and heritage scholar, and speaking with textiles as an example, all practice is situated. When documenting culture and turning it into heritage in a museum for society to engage with and learn from, it matters whose hands crafted the cloth for a specific tunic, but also whose hands were involved in accessioning, cataloguing, conservation and — not the least – whose bodies put the clothed body on display for other bodies to view. As Lloyd-Baynes reminds us, museums and their collections are not neutral, an idea put forward by museum theorists and by curators such as curators LaTanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski. Because museums are performative, they play key roles when culture becomes future heritage and history by the means of museum practice.
Inviting people into the museum to collaborate on equal terms when shaping catalogues, collections and exhibitions means letting go of some of the power that museum leadership and staff are used to holding. However, such change begins with the leadership at the Board level. Are the museums’ Board members holding museum staff accountable for this? Are the members of the Board sufficiently representative of the diversity of the community? What does a museum mean when they talk about the diversity of a community? The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is sufficiently concerned with these questions that it has recently announced an initiative — “Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion”–to help museums in five cities (one of them Minneapolis) to advance conversations and actions on these matters.
Although collaboration and engagement are contemporary buzzwords in the museum world, few museums seem able to turn theory into practice, at least as a sustainable practice that cuts at the core of collections and reaches core exhibitions. Museum leadership and staff must dare to make room for creators to speak for themselves and to self-identify, and for increased research into the collections.
In Sweden and the Nordic countries, where museums are organized a bit differently than in the US – and often lack, for example museums shaped by self-identified cultural groups — this issue is of particular importance and perhaps particularly challenging. Sweden, for example, is about to get its first national museum, the Museum of Movements (MoM) that acknowledges the processes of migration and civil engagement and a museum of women’s history (Kvinnohistoriskt Museum) was recently established in Stockholm.
As a collection and information specialist, Lloyd-Baynes underlines the importance of not leaving some of the traditional museum values behind. She highlights that museums must dare to dig deep into the rhizomes of their own collections practices and do this in an uncertain environment of shifting language and political correctness. This effort is for the long term. Museums need to make time for documentation and research. They need to capture a multiplicity of voices and ensure these are brought back into the more permanent record of their databases. A brief mention on a website is not a long-term solution, nor is a short-term spotlight like America’s annual ‘Black History Month’ or ‘Women’s Month’, ‘Saami Month’ or a multitude of visiting exhibitions on specific issues or groups.
Lloyd-Baynes is working to embed flexibility in Mia’s approach, ensuring leadership and staff understand it is an ongoing, work-in-progress, not a rigid or finite set of definitions. As a museum professional and researcher of heritage making in both vernacular and institutional settings in Sweden and the United states, I am convinced that Lloyd-Baynes and Mia have embarked on a journey from which museums, scholars and various communities can learn when stewarding future heritage and history. I hope it will not be long before we can all report progress following their lead.