Over the last year this blog has set the stage of a lot of (certainly not all of) the whys of how museums become alienating. Now that I’m able to safely visit museums in-person again, I can start to shout out museums that are actively working to be welcoming. Here are 5 of the things I look for.
1. Bringing Awareness to the Existence of the Western Canon
“Canon” refers to a group of rules or texts that are considered to be authoritative. The “Western Canon” of art refers to the story of the history of Western (meaning Euro-centric) art. When you visit an art museum and find it installed strictly chronologically, you might be visiting a museum that enforces the canon. If you took an intro level art history course in college and the book cover looked like the one pictured here, you probably only learned about the canon.
But wait, why is the canon bad? Isn’t it important to know the order in which things happened? Remember that history tends to reflect the experiences of those who have been allowed to record and write it. And if you’ve read basically anything on this blog or anything about the art world over the past couple of years, then you know that only wealthy white men had access to be the ones recording our history for a very long time. A strict adherence to the canon of art excludes simultaneous events and stories. In addition to perpetuating a harmfully white-, male-, hetero- & cis-centric version of history, strictly sticking to the canon makes visitors feel like they’re “supposed” to know certain things…things like what male artists are “important” and that Minimalism matters.
A day at the museum isn’t a semester-long course, or a comprehensive book. It’s just one day. I’m not at all asking that a museum explain and then dismantle the canon for visitors – that would not be very welcoming, because it would be very exhausting. Museums can use their interpretation, collecting and installation strategies in order to bring awareness to lesser-heard narratives.They can post questions about why certain artworks are on their walls. They can use their opportunities to collect new work to diversify their collection (which is hard, we get it). They can strategically install artworks in such a way that calls attention to connections made across time and space, rather than strictly adhering to a chronology.
A museum I visited recently and truly thought was doing an excellent job shaking up the Western Canon was the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY.
2. Evidence of the Awareness that Children Exist
Art museums are forever chasing that elusive 25-40 year old crowd. After people visit a museum on a school field trip, it tends to be difficult to rope them back in until much later in life. There are many reasons for this: museum operating hours, admission costs and disposable income, how easy it is to get to a museum, representation and what a museum actually has to offer, etc. etc. But you know what often consumes adults’ life between the ages of 20-50? Their young children.
There are plenty of brilliant educators finding ways to make exhibits approachable for children while still remaining interesting for adults. For example, MASS MoCA’s KidSpace presents thoughtful exhibitions by partnering with leading contemporary artists that are accessible for children, but not in any way “dumbed down” (I hate that phrase, please suggest an alternative). For example, their current exhibition deals with the artist’s investigation into her own family tree – a topic that’s super appealing to people of all ages. Previous exhibitions have looked at portrayals of women of color throughout history. Since most museum visitors are not art-world insiders, a child-centered exhibition strategy that considers how to make complex art concepts accessible actually works well for visitors of all ages.
Of course, some visitors to museums are art world insiders, or are looking for a grown-up experience, and many exhibitions are not going to appeal to young children, and that’s ok too. However, if you want to be *welcoming* to all visitors, you’re going to want to anticipate that children exist, as well as adults. Scavenger hunts, check-out art packs, hands-on opportunities, and family guides are low-hanging fruit to make an adult with kids feel that they’re welcome, too. Here is the thing: you’re not going to be able to have the same experience in an art museum with a child as you will without a child, especially if that child is under 10. But these low-hanging fruit options are not really for the kid! If you’re an adult who absolutely loves visiting art museums, some obvious signs that you are still welcome are going to go a long way towards making you want to visit an art museum while you’re in the throes of those child-rearing years.
If you want to be a specifically family- and kid-friendly art museum, you can go crazy with makerspaces, child-specific exhibits, special seating, lounges for nursing/snacking – the world is your oyster. The possibilities are endless.
There’s just one rule, though, to using the awareness of the existence of children to make your museum welcoming: visitors must SEE THE EVIDENCE. That means if you have a makerspace tucked down a quiet hallway (which is great for museum staff and other visitors) there must be other evidence somewhere in the actual museum galleries that children are invited into that space, as well. That could be art cards, special labels, a take-home project associated with an artwork. But if it isn’t visible in the galleries, it doesn’t count.
3. Evidence of Awareness of Different Learning Styles
Similar to needing to prove their awareness of the existence of children, to be welcoming, a museum really needs to be able to prove their awareness of different learning styles. I don’t know if you guys know about this, but we all experience life in our own way. Some of us absorb things that we read really well, some of us are kinesthetic and need to touch (shout out to both myself and my soon to be mother in law) (also all children are kinesthetic learners until they have a really good grasp on speaking and reading), some people need to process things by talking out loud about them, some people engage with new information best alone. So, if your museum has nothing but wall texts to deliver information about the art and exhibits, I can guarantee you that my first impression will not be that your museum is welcoming.
Erin Cole, history museum person and also the artist behind Little Brain Comics wrote a fabulous comic about creating exhibits a few years ago that sums this one up really well.
If now is the time that you’re thinking, “hmm, that seems like it should apply to accessibility considerations as well,” you’re absolutely right. You know how I’ve written like 15 posts about how representation in art really matters? It also matters that people see themselves represented in public spaces. That’s why it’s welcoming for visitors with young children to see evidence that children exist. Similarly, when it comes to different learning styles, it’s important to make whatever accommodations your museum has available visible during the check-in process and in the galleries. Perhaps your museum has a full-time staff of 2 and a budget of $100 per year and cannot offer any accommodations for disabilities such as vision impairment. In this case, you might creatively place a sign at your front desk and a place on your website that asks for feedback. It’s welcoming to ask people to let you know if you didn’t serve their specific learning needs that day – rather than letting people walk out the door feeling that they weren’t welcomed and never will be.
4. Interpretation that is Responsive to the Museum’s Primary Audience (and balances the reality of your primary audience vs. your aspirational primary audience)
At first I had titled this one, “interpretation that considers” the museum’s primary audience,” but anyone can SAY that they’ve “considered” the primary audience without actually taking action to consider the primary audience.
Only the people who work at a museum know who their primary audience is. If you work at a museum and you don’t know who your primary audience is, you should prioritize figuring that out, please. Are you located in a college town and host professors bringing classes through? Are you slow on daily drop-in visitors but serve an abundance of PreK-12 school kids throughout the year? Is the demographic of your town/county primarily retired White adults? Whoever that primary audience is, involve them in your planning via focus groups and evaluations. Think of this audience when you decide on the reading level your labels will be at, and the importance of hands-on interactive opportunities in the galleries, and what special exhibitions you plan to bring in. For example, it’s obvious that a campus museum will have meatier labels than a Main Street museum, because of the presence of college students.
Not every museum is a community-centered museum, but many museums could benefit from adopting an interest in being a community-centered museum. Big draw tourist museums are always going to attract visitors. But if you’re a mid-size or small museum in a non-tourist destination, who are you relying on to activate your museum space? (And again, if you’re not thinking about how your museum space is activated by having people in it, you’re definitely not welcoming and you should make that a priority.)
If you have an “aspirational audience,” work with intention to figure out how they can best be incorporated into your welcoming museum.
The Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, DE, considered who and how would their space be activated when they embarked on a series of listening sessions with their community. Interestingly this came a few years after the museum lost their accreditation (tho it appears they lost it for selling artworks due to financial struggles, which was a whole thing during 2020). After that brush with disaster, the museum got serious about being an public, community centered institution. They invited the community in to literally write on the walls and made long-lasting connections with community members and stakeholders. (They did a good job of following Michelle Obama’s blueprint.)
5. Awareness that Most Visitors are Not Museum- & Art-World Insiders
I bet 9/10 art museum’s style guides for writing their wall texts says something along the lines of “we assume that our audience is educated, but not experts on art,” and probably 2/10 art museums actually write their texts that way. Listen, you heard it hear first: it’s 2021, if people are intrigued by something they see on a label and it doesn’t give them that much information, they. will. GOOGLE. IT. Labels should be helping visitors to connect with art so that they feel that they learned something and so that they remember their time fondly. I could go on about labels for 10,000 words, so let’s stop there for today. There are many books written about it. Don’t get me riled up.
It isn’t only labels that distinguish museums that are or aren’t welcoming to visitors. I AM an art-world insider, and one thing that really gets my goat is when I visit a new museum and there’s no indication of collection highlights or what I should prioritize on my visit, especially in large museums. To me, this assumes that every visitor is an insider who is going to know what type of art is on their must-see list. Or, it assumes that people are so enthralled by art that they don’t get hungry or tired and will be able to stay in the museum long enough to see it all. Develop a nice little highlights guide. Put it on your front desk or on vinyl on an entrance wall and invite people to take photos of it. This is a nice way to say, hey. You might not visit art museums every weekend, and those of us who are freakily obsessed with art museums respect that about you, so we’ve endeavored to make this a super pleasant experience for you.
Also, I don’t know what category this falls in, or if it’s technically number 6 on this list, but BENCHES. For the love of Ruth. LET PEOPLE SIT DOWN. Set up some vignettes with actual chairs with backs where folks can actually rest. Purchase some funky benches so that for those instances when children exist, you have something that will distract them for 73 seconds so that their caregiver can read a label. Comfortable seating. Even those people who think museums should be silent halls of reflection should be able to get on board will reflecting while silent and seated.
Some of these topics will be expanded on in future posts, and I will hope to be able to continue visiting museums and reporting back on examples from the field! In the meantime – what do you look for as a museum professional visiting other museums? Let me know in the comments or on Instagram. What makes a museum welcoming?