Museum Inclusion: Who’s Really Telling The Story?
Have you ever walked through a museum, looked at the artifacts, art, and history on display, and wondered who’s shaping the narrative? As we celebrate National Native American History Month, it’s a fitting time to reflect on how, for too many years, these institutions have failed at museum inclusion, leaving behind the voices that matter most: those of the communities they claim to represent.
Consider the phrase, “Nothing about us without us,” often used in the context of disability rights and community inclusion. This principle emphasizes that decisions affecting a particular group need to involve meaningful participation from members of that group. In the world of museums, it challenges us to think beyond token representation and into a deeper responsibility.
“Nothing about us without us”
At the heart of this idea is that museums shouldn’t represent a community without actively involving that community in their decision-making. In essence, it’s a call for meaningful collaboration rather than just token representation.
Historically, museums have not always lived up to this ideal. As researchers from The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago put it, despite being touted as “a neutral and safe space for everyone … museums are not neutral and never have been … they have their own idiosyncratic power dynamics that reflect and uphold white supremacy and traditional gender norms.”
“Nothing about us without us” is a call for meaningful collaboration rather than just token representation.
Minority communities have often been excluded from the decision-making processes within these institutions — a reality that was glaringly obvious even in Tronvig’s own work with these major institutions. This exclusion is ethically troubling while also leading to an incomplete and often biased representation of history and culture.
“Nothing about us without us” seeks to put control back in the hands of those affected. By embracing this principle, museums can become spaces where culture and history are celebrated in a way that actually respects and engages the communities involved.
Beyond tokenism: the need for genuine inclusion in museums
In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized an exhibition about Harlem and Black America that included no paintings or sculptures by any Harlem-based artists. In response, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), composed of 75 Black artists, protested, sparking a movement that fought against this kind of omission and for museum inclusion.
Since then, a number of museums have recognized the importance of including these voices and made efforts to consult with Indigenous groups, minority communities, and marginalized populations when curating exhibits.
You can’t treat people like helpful tools to pursue “diversity” while simultaneously denying them real power and influence in the long run.
For instance, the Native North American Hall at Chicago’s The Field Museum underwent a major renovation, with the new exhibit Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories opening in May 2022. The biggest change in approach? The direct involvement of the indigenous community. “Over 130 Native Americans across the country representing 105 tribes” were consulted and more indigenous staff were hired.
The result was an exhibition filled with indigenous stories told by the community themselves. As Dakota and Diné artist and comedian Dallas Goldtooth described it, “I’m so used to these spaces feeling so foreign, because it’s like we’re on display, Native people and cultures are on display. This very much feels like we are in charge of the narrative.”
While including marginalized groups in exhibits and involving them in the curation process are steps in the right direction, it also needs to go beyond that. You can’t treat people like helpful tools to pursue “diversity” while simultaneously denying them real power and influence in the long run. These groups need to have a presence in key decision-making roles, leadership positions, and board memberships.
This idea has been pushed for decades, including by the BECC, which “beyond representation on the walls of museums … fought for the hiring of Black people in curatorial and decision-making roles, in the hopes that integration within the museum staff would solve the problem of exclusion of Black artists.”
It can also be argued that the inclusion of Indigenous and Black communities in museum boards and leadership roles is not only a matter of equity but also an imperative step toward rectifying the historical injustices that underpin many museums. (And, as noted in our ESG post on board diversity, it is a best practice when developing a more effective board in a corporate setting. We strongly believe this translates into the nonprofit realm as well.)
Many museums’ financial foundations and exhibits have been established with money and generational wealth derived from chattel slavery.
For Indigenous communities, the connection to the land on which museums stand runs deep, intertwined with complex histories of colonization and dispossession. Similarly, the Black community has long been affected by the injustices and horrors of slavery, the echoes of which still reverberate through our society. As these discussions develop, there’s a growing acknowledgment that many museums’ financial foundations and exhibits have been established with money and generational wealth derived from chattel slavery.
By having their voices at the decision-making table, museums not only acknowledge their historical roots but also embrace the wealth of experiences and perspectives that each community brings. In doing so, these institutions can play a vital role in addressing the disparities of the past and foster an environment where the voices that have long been silenced can finally begin to be heard.
Acknowledge the past. Shape the future.
Thinking back to my own experiences visiting museums, the power of a well-curated exhibit to educate and inspire has always been undeniable. However, I’m reminded that the narratives I see are crafted by the hands, minds, and voices of people — and that the storyteller is just as important as the story being told.
When we enter a museum, we shouldn’t only engage with what is presented but also think about the perspectives that might be missing. What about your own experiences? Have you ever questioned whose stories are told and whose voices are involved? Have you noticed the absence of certain perspectives?
Museums hold a unique and highly trusted position in our society, serving as bridges between the past, present, and future. With the power to influence our view of the world, museums have a responsibility to do so accurately. They exist not just to display artifacts and artworks but to foster dialogue, understanding, and inclusivity.
Featured image is of Helen Escobedo’s “Los Mojados,” taken by James Heaton.