Have you done a representation audit of your site?

Years ago I did contract with at a museum of palaeontology. In those days, the museum had a classic “Ascent of Man” image in one of the great halls. You’ve probably seen them; it was something like this:

I don’t know how many times I walked past the thing without thinking too much of it… until a colleague of mine, a woman of colour, pointed out that for some reason the pinnacle of evolution in these things is always a white man.

I was quite young at the time, and I remember being struck by her observation and ashamed that I hadn’t noticed the bias in the illustration—I was blinded by my own privilege. I resolved to take a more critical approach to the way I interact with exhibits.

For my colleague, though, this wasn’t just an intellectual observation. It was clear that this was just one of many signals she had received over the years that our museums are not for people like her. A visit to a museum (historic site, park, zoo, aquarium) is a dizzying array of signals and messages that either welcome or discourage the visitor based on their identity. For those of us who facilitate visitor experiences for a living, the responsibility is clear: we need to re-examine the entire visit cycle, from planning through arriving through remembering, and ferret out the subtle signals—verbal and nonverbal—that communicate to some visitors that they don’t belong.

And trust me, once you get started and tune your eye and ear to the task, the number of signals is staggering.

“You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.”

Michelle Obama, opening of the Whitney Museum

A Diversity Audit

First, you invite members of your underserved communities for an afternoon or evening. The place will be closed to the public; it’s a special event. When they arrive, welcome them, feed them something nice if you can, and hand them a simple task:

Armed with a few simple guidelines and a large pile of sticky notes—or whatever super-simple tool your conservation staff are comfortable with—their job is to blitz the place from stem to stern, looking at the entire visitor experience from the point of view of their own community. What rubs them the wrong way? What makes them feel unwelcome? What is factually incorrect? What is missing, in your stories, your imagery, your interpretation, your amenities?

They will cast a critical eye on more than your content. They’ll look at your washrooms, your snack bar, your layout, your artwork, your labels, your live collections, the works. It can be a humbling experience.

Your job is to sit back and observe and say thank you. Perhaps your job is to wander and document through photography where all the tags have landed; but your job is not to explain or defend your institution’s choices.

When it’s all done, your job is to document and report back to your leadership (who ideally are there for at least part of the event, as listeners) and recommend a plan of action.

Imagine how gratifying it will be for all of you when you can invite this same group back and get their comments on your radical new work in progress.

One Comment

  1. Don, I wanted to let you know that I regularly read your blog. Now, of course, half the time I have no effing clue what you’re talking about, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it and being supremely impressed. Good on ya!

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