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It’s Not Just for the Children: On Engaging Culturally Diverse Families at Museums

Pamela Maldonado & Cecilia Nguyen

Pamela Maldonado (she, her, hers) is the BurkeMobile Program Manager at the Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture in Seattle, Washington, USA. As an outreach educator, she designs and facilitates programs for schools and communities across the state. Pamela is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Cecilia Nguyen (she, her, hers) is Senior Exhibit Developer at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon, USA. She leads research and development for exhibitions and multimedia experiences. Cecilia is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

As museum practitioners in the United States who develop and deliver programming and exhibits to museum audiences, our jobs require that we be highly aware of the people our institutions serve. We seek to create experiences sparking interest, pleasure, and motivation that audiences find personally relevant to their lives and cultures. And, as people of color with bicultural backgrounds, we have identities that give us perspectives that are especially relevant to creating content for culturally diverse audiences.

We are sometimes painfully aware of who our museums don’t serve. Our institutions were founded to reflect and uphold the dominant culture—the Burke Museum in 1885 and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in 1944. Like many other institutions, these museums are undergoing massive shifts in understanding their audiences, why their exhibits and programming exclude, alienate, or even harm certain audiences, and how to carry out their missions of serving the public more equitably.

In this paper, we review Curator: The Museum Journal’s archives and research articles related to identity. We investigated if and how the museum literature addresses inclusion and culturally diverse families. We did this because issues of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion are in the foreground of how we serve our audiences, the majority of which are children and families. We explore both foundational literature and new research to support museum professionals, especially those who are early in their careers.

Concerning families specifically, a search for abstracts from the last five years (January 2015–June 2020) of Curator’s archive yields ten articles. From the previous five years (2010–2014), we found another six articles. These 16 articles make up about 2% of roughly 480 articles and other published pieces during those years. This very narrow search may not be an accurate portrayal of how much Curator articles address family-related topics but does indicate that there is limited discussion in the journal focused on families, let alone families of underrepresented cultural identities. Compared to the prevalence of family participation in museums (Borun, 2002; Dierking, n.d.; COVES, 2019), it appears there is a gap in the literature. Curator is not the only journal related to museum studies, of course, and other journals, such as Visitor Studies and the Journal of Museum Education, also provide scholarship on this topic.

Families & Museums

According to the learning researchers Dierking and Falk (Dierking, n.d.), family groups make up about 60% of museum visitors in the United States. The Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies (COVES) project reported in 2019 an even larger majority. In a visitor study conducted from 2018–2019 at 21 North American museums of all sizes, 79% out of over 17,500 survey respondents were visiting in groups with children (COVES, 2019). These studies demonstrate clearly how important family audiences are to museums, and the importance of considering their needs when developing and designing exhibits, wayfinding, and providing programs.

Multiple factors influence family learning in museums. Across institutions, the studies we found outlined evidence for characteristics of museum experiences that support family engagement. The seminal 1990s study published in Curator by the Philadelphia-Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC) established seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits (Borun et al., 1997). Seven years later, the USS Constitution Museum in Massachusetts, USA began studying these characteristics and expanded the list to nine items. According to this expanded list, family-friendly exhibits are: multi-user, multimodal, multi-sided, encouraging conversation, multi-outcome, authentic and distinctive, relevant, accessible, and feature fun and play (USS Constitution Museum, 2020).

The United States’ demographics will change dramatically in the upcoming decades, and it is projected that the majority of children will be non-white. By 2050, “African Americans, Latinos (of any race), Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and others, including those who identify as multiracial—will collectively become the new majority in the United States” (Farrell, Medvedeva, Cultural Policy Center & NORC, 2010, p. 9). There are projections that there will not be a “single racial or ethnic majority” by 2055 (Cohn & Caumont, 2016). As the museum field considers its future, there needs to be a consideration of historic and current trends in museum visitorship, and how to serve non-white communities that within our lifetimes will make up the majority of the country’s population and potential museum visitors. Shifts in the United States’ demographics are similar to those experienced in other countries and regions globally due to migration (United Nations, 2019).

Changing demographics provide museums the compelling opportunity to ensure that culturally diverse families will see them as welcoming places. However, there have been and continue to be barriers for people to enter and participate in museums (Farrell, Medvedeva, Cultural Policy Center & NORC, 2010, p. 13; Dawson, 2014), which may be structural or intangible. According to Farrell, Medvedeva, Cultural Policy Center, and NORC’s analysis, structural barriers can include museum policies and systems, geographic location, the makeup of the staff hired, and the cost of admission. Intangible barriers could be an individual’s perceptions that certain spaces are not for them and having negative emotions about the type of institution.

Diverse Families & Museums

The museum field has an established literature and conducts evaluation focused on family audiences. Curator published a bibliographic review compiled by Borun, Cleghorn, and Garfield (1995) that provides an earlier overview of family learning and how it might translate to museums, and annotates the foundational research on this topic. In 2012, Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson published a Curator article that outlines the research that has since been conducted.

Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson’s (2012) high-level analysis of the literature found that families learn together and from each other, and their learning cannot be separated from their social and cultural context (Vygotsky 1978 & Wersch 1985 as cited by Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson, 2012; Ji, Anderson, Wu & Kang, 2014). Family members’ socio-cultural identities can be defined through their “language, values, ideologies, and social norms” (Brooker 2003 & Rogoff 1990 as cited by Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson, 2012). Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson assert that if visitors’ socio-cultural backgrounds are studied and considered, then the museum field would better understand how visitors currently or potentially will experience a museum.

However, research into family learning in informal environments has mostly considered and studied Anglo perspectives at Anglo institutions (Briseño‐Garzón & Anderson, 2012; Ji, Anderson, Wu & Kang, 2014). The first two decades of the 21st century found museum researchers and professionals advocating for a better understanding of the museum experiences of families with different cultural identities. Still the Curator archives contained examples of research that were primarily from Anglo perspectives, with few examples of studies on culturally diverse families in museums in other countries. Research from other journals focused on museums or STEM informal learning for audiences that are of the non-dominant culture provide more examples.

Dawson’s (2014) article in Science Education offers an example of an inclusive approach to family learning research, which can be instructive for professionals and researchers alike. Dawson conducted a study in London with families and social groups of four different low-income, ethnic minorities, which sought to understand the families’ perceptions and experiences at multiple science centers and science museums. The motivation for this study was the recognition that previous research on participation in informal science education usually focused on people that are already participating—typically middle class, white, and are geographically able to visit. Dawson’s study found that participants from minority groups experienced these institutions in ways that confirmed the perceptions and feelings they had before entering—that the spaces were not socially welcoming and were exclusionary. Prior to their visits, Dawson’s participants said that they didn’t think the science centers were places for them or they weren’t interested in going. One participant said that they weren’t going to see people like them at the science centers, and others said that they had anxieties around how to behave in the spaces. During their visits, participants found that their concerns and expectations were accurate. Many of the centers visited only used English and the participants in Dawson’s study said that this impeded their understanding of content and ability to navigate. All of these factors influence an individual’s experience of the museum visit.

The literature in the archive suggests a clear need for museums to do better at addressing and representing culturally diverse families. At the beginning of the 21st century, evidence-based solutions and recommendations began to appear. The exploratory study by the Office of Policy and Analysis at the Smithsonian Institution, “Increasing Museum Visitation by Underrepresented Audiences” (2001) identified three types of strategies that museums employ to increase audience diversity: adapt exhibits and public programs to appeal to those communities; modify the setting where programs take place; and better promote programs.

That paper noted inclusion strategies for general audiences but did not distinguish specific needs of family audiences. According to an article by Stein, Garibay, and Wilson (2008) in Museums and Social Issues, incorporating intergenerational participation is especially important when designing museum programs for immigrant and underrepresented communities because their cultures are often family oriented. Although younger generations might be able to navigate English, the dominant language in the United States, other generations in the family group might not. If the facilitation, wayfinding, and interpretation is in a language they don’t understand, they can’t fully participate. Language plays a large role in being able to participate and navigate a space, as well as in making people feel welcome and included.

Additional studies further illustrate the importance of language for families. The Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative (BERI) project, funded by the US National Science Foundation, sought to understand bilingual exhibit practices and Spanish-speaking visitors’ perceptions of them (Yalowitz, Garibay, Renner & Plaza, 2013). In a guest post on the Museum 2.0 blog, Yalowitz (2014) listed three observations from this research: code-switching (the ability to change between languages and cultures), facilitation, and emotional reaction. The study found that in bilingual groups, the family members were able to switch between English and Spanish, as well as between their personal cultures and the dominant culture. The study also found that the adults were more likely to read Spanish labels and then felt confident to facilitate interactions with their younger family members. Some members of the family groups had an emotional reaction to seeing the bilingual interpretation, stating that they enjoyed the experience more and it improved their perception of the institution.

Considering this foundational research on family learning, more recent studies on this topic, and our own experience as museum practitioners, we emphasize that learning is tied to a person’s identity and cannot be separated from the individual, how they perceive the world around them, and how they process information. Family members learn and develop their cultural identity from each other. This is a compelling reason for museums of all kinds to work on making experiences inclusive for families of diverse identities.

Look Inward & Reach Out

There is no doubt that increasing diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) has become a priority for cultural institutions in 2020, and Curator is no stranger to the urgency swelling throughout the field, particularly in the last few years. The formation of the Writing Scholars Workshop, which produced this Virtual Issue, is just one example of the journal’s efforts. Case studies, critiques, and primary research in Curator have addressed systemic racism, inclusion for people with disabilities, cultural accessibility and inclusion, community engagement, and the social justice responsibility of museums, to name just a few topics.

Sustainable change towards DEAI requires more than evolving how public audiences perceive and engage with museum experiences. In 2019, the journal published “The Empathetic Museum: A New Institutional Journey,” (Jennings et al.), which described how some museums have approached this work holistically. The framework, called the Maturity Model, outlines five characteristics of an empathetic museum (civic vision, institutional body language, community resonance, timeliness and sustainability, and performance measures) and progressive steps that institutions can take to build empathetic practices. The authors were careful to point out that the Model is a tool that organizations may use to assess their journeys, but it is not intended to define final outcomes. The Model offers a way to reflect on and transform an institution’s policies, norms, and practices.

There are a number of articles published from 2015–2019 in Curator that described what museums were doing to make experiences more equitable, accessible, and inclusive for culturally diverse families. Some are mentioned here and others in the recommended reading list. For example, in “Museum Makers: Family Explorations of Data Science through Making and Exhibit Design,” Letourneau and colleagues (2020), discussed a study in which the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York, USA engaged families from the museum’s immediate neighborhood to support young children’s development of math reasoning skills through hands-on data science. The authors described the neighborhood as having high percentages of residents born outside the United States (almost two-thirds), and 21% of households were people experiencing poverty. The program sought to make the experience inclusive, engaging, and accessible for multilingual and multicultural families, and it was developed in line with prior research on family learning in informal learning spaces relevant to math and facilitation strategies.

Collective Change

In this Virtual Issue, we share some articles and case studies to inspire museum scholars and practitioners to engage culturally diverse families. The evidence from these studies suggests the shifts in perspective and frameworks of understanding that are needed to bring about deep and sustainable change. But these publications also suggest success is feasible if cultural institutions and stakeholders are committed to their missions and connected to their communities.

Grassroots efforts in the previous decade (2010–2020) have yielded industry-wide groups and communities of practice such as The Empathetic Museum, Museum as Site for Social (MASS) Action, and Museums & Race: Transformation and Justice. Institutional efforts have also gained momentum, including Facing Change, an American Alliance of Museums initiative; Museums for All, a cooperative initiative of the Association of Children’s Museums and the Institution of Museum and Library Services (USA); professional development programs at the Science Museum Minnesota’s IDEAL Center; and the Cultural Competence Learning Institute (CCLI), a collaboration between the Association of Children’s Museums, Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, the Association of Science-Technology Centers, and The Garibay Group. CCLI has released a new report, CCLI National Landscape Study: The State of DEAI Practices in Museums (Garibay & Olson, 2020), on a large-scale survey of cultural institutions of all types and sizes. We expect many in the United States will make this report a touchstone to inform equity-related initiatives.

At this writing, there are multiple free resources that offer museum practitioners useful tools, reading lists, and active forums for dialogue to help transform museums into inclusive, accessible, and equitable institutions in both inward- and public-facing ways (including resources from the organizations listed above). For example, resources for practices around family inclusivity in exhibits and programs include Middleton’s (2014) “Family-Inclusive Language” chart, which gives recommendations on terms to use and avoid; The REVEAL Responsive Museum Facilitation Guide (Andanen, Rubin, Pattison, Gontan, & Bromley, 2017) which focuses on engaging families at interactive exhibits; and Engage Families: A Guide to Family Engagement in Exhibits and Programs (USS Constitution Museum, 2020), which focuses on support for families including those from culturally rich backgrounds.


The articles and resources described above offer the hope and power of collective action to create more equitable impacts for museums and the families they serve. From our positions in institutions that were created for the dominant white and western European culture, we are working hard to make these spaces more welcoming for culturally diverse families that might not yet see themselves reflected in those spaces. With the historic events of 2020, systemic inequities have been laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and continued police persecution of Black Americans. Cultural institutions have an opportunity to increase and improve accessibility and inclusion for all families in meaningful, relevant, and potentially healing ways.

Recommended Reading from the Curator Archive

Akiva, T., Schunn, C.D. & Louw, M. (2017). What Drives Attendance at Informal Learning Activities? A Study of Two Art Programs. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 351–364.

Deng, L. (2017). Equity of Access to Cultural Heritage: Museum Experience as a Facilitator of Learning and Socialization in Children with Autism. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 411–426.

Golden, T. & Walsh, L. (2013). Play For All at Chicago Children’s Museum: A History and Overview. Curator: The Museum Journal, 56: 337–347.

Kahn, D. M. (1994). Diversity and the Museum of London. Curator: The Museum Journal, 37: 240–250.

Kopke, J. (2011). The Denver Community Museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 54: 399–402.

Kulik, T. K. & Fletcher, T. S. (2016). Considering the Museum Experience of Children with Autism. Curator: The Museum Journal, 59: 27–38.

Langa, L. A., Monaco, P., Subramaniam, M., Jaeger, P. T., Shanahan, K. & Ziebarth, B. (2013). Improving the Museum Experiences of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Their Families: An Exploratory Examination of Their Motivations and Needs and Using Web‐based Resources to Meet Them. Curator: The Museum Journal, 56: 323–335.

Lee, T. S.‐C. (2020). Curriculum Based Interactive Exhibition Design and Family’s Learning Experiences: A Case Study of the Children’s Art Museum in Taipei. Curator: The Museum Journal, 63: 83–98.


Andanen, E., Rubin, A., Pattison, S., Gontan, I. & Bromley, C. (2017). REVEAL Responsive Museum Facilitation: A Video-Based Reflection Guide for Engaging Families at Interactive Exhibits. Portland, OR: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Borun, M. (2002). Object-based Learning and Family Groups in Perspectives on Object-centered Learning in Museums, edited by Scott Paris. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Borun, M., Cleghom, A. & Garfield, C. (1995). Family Learning in Museums: A Bibliographic Review. Curator: The Museum Journal, 38: 262–270.

Borun, M., Chambers, M. B., Dritsas, J. & Johnson, J. I. (1997). Enhancing Family Learning Through Exhibits. Curator: The Museum Journal, 40: 279–295.

Briseño‐Garzón, A. & Anderson, D. (2012). “My Child is Your Child”: Family Behavior in a Mexican Science Museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55: 179–201.

Cohn, D. & Caumont, A. (2016, March 31). “10 demographic trends shaping the U.S. and the world in 2016.”

COVES (Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies). (2019). Understanding Our Visitors: Multi-Institutional Museum Study July 2018 – July 2019.

Dawson, E. (2014). “Not Designed for Us”: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low‐Income, Minority Ethnic Groups. Science Education, 98: 981–1008.

Dierking, L., Kiihne, R., Rand, A., & Solvay, M. (2006). Laughing & Learning Together: Family Learning Research Becomes Practice at the USS Constitution Museum. History News, 61(3): 12–15.

Dierking, L. (n.d.). Why is Family Learning Important?

Farrell, B., Medvedeva, M., Cultural Policy Center & NORC. (2010). Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. Washington, DC: The AAM Press.

Garibay, C. & Olson, J. M. (2020). CCLI National Landscape Study: The State of DEAI Practices in Museums. Technical report.

Jennings, G., Cullen, J., Bryant, J., Bryant‐Greenwell, K., Mann, S., Hove, C. & Zepeda, N. (2019). The Empathetic Museum: A New Institutional Identity. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62: 505–526.

Ji, J., Anderson, D., Wu, X. & Kang, C. (2014). Chinese Family Groups’ Museum Visit Motivations: A Comparative Study of Beijing and Vancouver. Curator: The Museum Journal, 57: 81–96.

Letourneau, S.M., Liu, C.J., Donnelly, K., Meza, D., Uzzo, S. and Culp, K.M. (2020), Museum Makers: Family Explorations of Data Science through Making and Exhibit Design. Curator: The Museum Journal, 63: 131–145.

Middleton, M. (2014). Including the 21st Century Family. Incluseum.

Yalowitz, S. (2014, Wednesday, March 12). The truth about bilingual interpretation: Guest Post by Steve Yalowitz. Museum 2.0 Blog.

Smithsonian Institution. (2001). Increasing Museum Visitation by Under Represented Audiences: An Exploratory Study of Art Museum Practices.

Stein, J., Garibay, C., & Wilson, K. (2008). Engaging Immigrant Audiences in Museums. Museums & Social Issues, 3(2): 179–196.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. (2019). World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights. ST/ESA/SER.A/423.

USS Constitution Museum. (2020). Engage Families.

Yalowitz, S., Garibay, C., Renner, N., & Plaza, C. (2013). Bilingual Exhibit Research Initiative: Institutional and Intergenerational Experiences with Bilingual Exhibitions.

Increasing Museum Capacities for Serving Non-White Audiences

Nick Martinez, MPA

Nick Martinez is Manager of Internships and Youth Community at the American Museum of Natural History. Drawing on his own African American and Hispanic identity, his work focuses on bringing communities of color into museum spaces. Nick is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Museums have long been considered bastions of knowledge, housing some of humanity’s greatest works of art and creativity, helping society understand complex scientific principles, and exposing millions of people to a variety of cultures from across the globe. At the same time, museums have been a hallmark of colonialism and oppression, a manifestation of white supremacy that supports the normalization of whiteness and alienation of non-white cultures. Whiteness assumed the privilege of visiting distant lands and removing cultural objects and treasures. Whiteness excised people from their lands and homes. Whiteness placed objects and people on display for consumption by a largely white audience. While many institutions are now repatriating some objects, vestiges of these power dynamics are still present in museums today.

Despite museums’ problematic history, the first two decades of the 21st century saw the field, visitorship, and the sector’s economic output grow rapidly. Here, I focus on the context of the United States of America because that is where I live and work. In early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that museums in the US received more than 850 million visits per year and annually contributed more than $50 billion dollars to the economy (AAM, 2020). In 2014, The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency that supports the cultural sector in the US, estimated that there are over 35,000 active museums in the country, a number that doubled from the 1990s when there were approximately 17,500 museums across the country (IMLS, 2014). The museum sector has grown in many other countries as well (OECD & ICOM, 2019).

In spite of this expansion, non-white visitorship to museums in the US continues to lag behind the growing non-white population of the country (Center for the Future of Museums, 2017). Museums have invested heavily in trying to recruit diverse audiences, but there has been limited success. No longer can museums be accessible only to those from the highest socio-economic brackets, nor can they only tell stories through the lens of whiteness. The museum field in the US and beyond now understands that these institutions’ inability to attract diverse audiences threatens the relevance and role of museums in society (Akiva, Shunn, and Louw, 2017; Merritt, 2011).

Today’s museums are grappling with the legacy of colonialism and oppression, while trying to maintain relevance as the US shifts to becoming a majority minority nation (Center for the Future of Museums, 2017). Specifically, within the US, the African American community has been largely ignored and left out of participation within museums, despite being one of the largest minority groups in the country.

I examined Curator: The Museum Journal’s archive and other sources looking for the history of minority community representation and depiction within museum spaces. My goal was to understand what the literature suggests as a starting place for increasing participation from African American communities within museum spaces. Curator’s archive offered few studies specifically connected to African American participation and experiences in museums, which was not surprising to me. But my analysis of other articles in the archive both shed new light on this topic and suggested promising ways forward.

Most audience participation studies that I encountered used white lenses and failed to highlight the ethnicity and racial identity of the study participants indicating, incorrectly, that race, ethnicity or even income do not impact how a visitor engages within a museum space. The few studies that exist explicitly indicate that ethnicity has a huge impact on museum participation, but it is difficult to study audience participation among non-white audiences when they have opted out. John Falk’s (1993) study of leisure decisions among African Americans showed that regardless of ethnicity, museum visitors were more educated and more affluent than the general population. But even when education and wealth were controlled for, Black people visited museums at half the rate of white people. Additionally, there were perceptions among the study participants that museums are racist institutions and not really a “black thing.” Even with that understanding, Falk published an article in 2010 titled An Identity‐Centered Approach to Understanding Museum Learning that mentions ethnicity twice, but fails to identify the ethnicities of the study participants or describe how ethnicity may or may not impact the visitor motivations and engagement (Falk, 2010).

In a more recent Curator article, researchers Thomas Akiva, Christian D. Schunn, and Marti Louw (2017) compared participation in two programs, one at an art museum and a second at a neighborhood-based organization. They determined that ethnicity was the largest demographic determinant of participation in the two programs. Compared to participants in the neighborhood-based organization, most people who attended the art museum program came from neighborhoods with smaller populations of African Americans, lower proportions of those below the poverty line, and lower rates of people without college degrees. This research suggests that we need to take a look at studies that go beyond counting attendance of African Americans in museums.

The literature indicates that a critical factor behind African American participation in museums is the field’s history. Many museums were designed by white people for white audiences and were never intended to be spaces serving diverse audiences. Racial segregation was outlawed in the United States in the 1960s when Congress passed  laws to stop discrimination in voting and elections, housing, and education. The Curator archives show that segregation lived on in different ways in museums. According to Smithsonian Institution researcher Faun Rice, “installations specifically for non-white artists might be placed in a museum lobby or dining area, re-segregating African American art and relegating it to the doorways and kitchens of America’s prestigious institutions” (Rice, 2017, p. 249). Similarly, Falk pointed out in an earlier Curator article that the lack of prominence given to non-white artists’ work and cultural exhibitions that continued to exoticize and stereotype non-white groups contributed to the idea that museums are not for communities of color (Falk, 1993).

Staffing and the design of exhibitions play a role in African Americans’ engagement with museums as well, according to my review of Curator’s archive. An article by Barbara J. Soren (2000) suggested that the white lenses that museums and exhibitions have been designed with alienate communities of color. A participant in an audience study conducted by the Art Institute of Chicago, when discussing a lack of African American visitors, said during an interview, “There is a broad cross-section of people and a large middle class in Chicago; it’s puzzling why they’re not here?” (p. 332). Another participant in the same study asked, “Where are the people of color on staff besides cafeteria staff and security guards?” (p. 332).

A history of colonialism and racism in the way museums are structured has led to the exploitation of non-white cultures, a lack of authentic representation in exhibitions, and staffing that does not utilize the experiences and expertise of members of those cultures. When museums do hire African American professionals, those individuals face racism, discrimination, and erasure. For example, at the American Museum of Natural History, where I work, there is no public recognition of the work of Joseph Towles, an African American anthropologist. Towles curated and developed exhibits in the Hall of African Peoples in conjunction with his colleague and partner Colin Turnbull from 1965 to 1967 (Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, 2009). But even though other curators and museum staff are named, Towles is not mentioned in the hall or on the museum website, and is absent from most discussion about the development of the exhibition. In an article published by Curator in 1973 about the development of the Hall of African Peoples, then called Hall of Man in Africa, Thomas Nicholson makes no mention of Towles and attributes the work mainly to Turnbull and exhibition designer, Henry Gardiner (Nicholson, 1973). Today, over 50 years later, this omission gives the sense that the museum exploited the African American scholar’s work and refuses to acknowledge his contributions. If African American staff of museums are treated this way, communities of color cannot expect to feel respected, valued, or welcomed in these spaces.

Approaches & Practices

What will it take to increase museum participation among African Americans in the US? Generating visitorship among African Americans takes more than simply starting the engagement early in people’s lives. Many young people visit museums on field trips and family outings, but that hasn’t helped to create lifelong museum-goers (Falk, 1993). Based on the literature I’ve studied and my own experience of working in the field, I believe museums must go through a comprehensive examination and reimagination of their culture. This work will require more effort than posting vapid statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and public commitments to diversity, so often carefully worded to allow for little transparency. It demands accountability, confronting the institution’s participation in systems of oppression, addressing hiring and promotion disparities, using the museum’s space and platform to amplify Black voices, and respecting the contributions and work of Black people. Museums can no longer be spaces for housing the spoils of colonialism. Museums must be places that not only have diverse staff working at all levels throughout the institution, but also spaces for dynamic conversation and thought. Here are some ideas based on literature from Curator’s archives and other sources:

Exhibition Design – Dynamic exhibition design is just as important as diversity among members of staff and audiences, when it comes to engaging non-white audiences. This is especially true when exhibitions discuss culture. Museums should design exhibitions with regular iteration planned for the life of the installation. Exhibitions focusing on culture can quickly embody problematic stereotypes and become time capsules depicting a cultural group as static rather than the dynamic amalgam of traditional and contemporary practices typical of all cultures. The Hall of African Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History, curated in the 1960s by Joseph Towles and Colin Turnbull, was designed to highlight that “tribal society in Africa achieved stability and developed moral and social characteristics often considered to be a monopoly of the western world” (Nicholson, 1973). When it was designed, the exhibition was sectioned into ecological zones, instead of by country, region, or cultural practice. It featured displays of instruments, tools, masks, and ceremonial dress. There were also life-size dioramas of people in their environments, an exhibition technique often seen in animal-focused exhibitions like the Hall of African Mammals, North American Mammals, or Birds of the World. The exhibit is still structured the same way today and remains largely unchanged. However, in 2020 The Hall of African Peoples is seen by many visitors and staff as an example of colonialism, oppression, and anti-Blackness. The varying states of disrepair, antiquated thinking, and lack of updates in many ways, paints the cultures and peoples of Africa as stuck in the past.

It is possible to build accurate and respectful exhibits about cultures if museums invest the time. As Lauren Cross and Tiffany Isselhardt (2020) described in their Virtual Issue, museum staff can effectively collaborate with the groups that will be represented within museum spaces. Recently, the American Museum of Natural History began a project to renovate and co-curate a new iteration of the former Hall of Northwest Coast Indians in partnership with Indigenous groups from the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. This is an opportunity for First Nation peoples to author their own story and shape public understanding of their people for decades to come, while providing significant cultural context to the artifacts often void of the significance to the people who made them (D’Costa, 2017). This project is a beginning step for a famous museum to address a problematic narrative that has offended many of the people the original exhibition was meant to acknowledge.

Sharing Authority – New generations of potential museum patrons have grown up in the digital age with immense creative ability, and many look for opportunities to create and curate content in ways that make it their own (Merritt, 2011). Shifting away from a model where the museum is the sole keeper and producer of knowledge can bridge gaps between communities and museums. To accomplish this, institutions should experiment with collaborating and embracing the ideas, expertise, and perspectives of local communities. In their Curator article, Pamela Barnes and Gayle McPherson described the impact community collaboration can have on the demographics of museum visitorship, writing, “Allowing different members of the community to engage with the development of the museum and gallery planning will allow the site to move away from being represented by a small section of the community who are often older, wealthier and who hold higher formal education levels” (Barnes and McPherson, 2019, p. 264). This approach requires museums to relinquish some power and control and engage in true collaboration in shaping narratives.

Representation – African American audiences want representation not only within staff and volunteers of museums, but also within museums’ exhibitions and promotional material. We want our work and contributions acknowledged, compensated, and not exploited. In the study of art museum visitors, Soren describes Black visitors who voiced a desire for African American content in their museum experience. One visitor said, “For art to be displayed that I can relate to—I want to see more paintings of African Americans—something to get in depth with” (Soren, 2000, p. 333).

Curator’s archive offers a case study by Portia James (1996), about a museum that was built with the goal of community representation. The Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC was designed to focus on the African American community in a section of the city, be a part of the community, and to co-produce with members of the community. As an initiative of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum was built in the 1960s within a community that was reluctant to travel the 8 kilometers (5 miles) to the National Mall, where many of the US’ federally funded museums with free admission are located. The Anacostia museum provided a space that celebrated the art and culture of the African American community and placed  the community at the forefront of its work. James reports that the museum faced challenges maintaining the community aspect as its identity shifted from community involvement to a more traditional format in a new location with roped-off displays, security guards in galleries, and dropping “neighborhood” from its original name, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. Ultimately, the museum returned to the community-centered practices that originally drew its core, local audience. These renewed efforts involved community advisory boards, local cultural organizations, and places of worship in exhibition and programming development. With a commitment to equitable participation, many museums can use these techniques to undertake equitable representation in their spaces and exhibits.


Museums are havens of knowledge, providing visitors with self-directed learning opportunities to explore their interests and passions. A review of literature in Curator’s archives indicates that, historically, non-white audiences have largely been excluded from authoring and curating their own stories in these spaces. Why, then, would they choose to visit? If museums seek to reach the diverse people in their communities, they must look for ways to incorporate non-white audiences in the creation process so that people who have been excluded are represented and respected in their halls. Research published in Curator and elsewhere points to the potential for this work. As an African American museum professional, I believe my community wants to be embraced as collaborators, as owners of their stories, and the voices that tell those stories. As the museum field continues to evolve, it’s critical for non-white audiences to have space and presence within these institutions.


American Alliance of Museums. (2020). Museum Facts and Data.

Akiva, T., Schunn, C.D. and Louw, M. (2017), What Drives Attendance at Informal Learning Activities? A Study of Two Art Programs. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 351-364.

Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. (2009). Joseph A. Towles Papers.

Barnes, P. and McPherson, G. (2019), Co‐Creating, Co‐producing and Connecting: Museum Practice Today. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62: 257-267.

Center for the Future of Museums. (2017), Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums.

Cross, L. and Isselhardt, T. (2020), You Love Them, but You Don’t Know Them: Recognizing & Welcoming Lived Experiences. Curator: The Museum Journal.

D’Costa, K. (2017), Historic Northwest Coast Hall to Undergo Significant Restoration at AMNH with Support from First Nation Representatives. Scientific American

Falk, J. (1993), Leisure Decisions Influencing African-American Use of Museums. Visitor Behavior, 8: 11-12. https://VSA-a0a1u2-a_5730.pdf

Falk, J. H. (2006). An identity‐centered approach to understanding museum learning. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49: 151-166.

Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS). (2014) Government Doubles Official Estimate: There Are 35,000 Active Museums in the U.S.

James, P. (1996), Building a Community‐Based Identity at Anacostia Museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 39: 19-44.

Merritt, E. (2011), How to Forecast the Future of Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 54: 25-34.

Nicholson, T.D. (1973), The Hall of Man in Africa at The American Museum of Natural History. Curator: The Museum Journal, 16: 5-24.

OECD & ICOM. (2019). Culture and Local Development: Maximising the Impact: Guide for Local Governments, Communities and Museums. OECD & ICOM. Accessed 21 August 2020:

Rice, F. (2017), National Museum of African American History and Culture: A New Integration?. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 249-258.

Soren, B.J. (2000), Audience Research Informs Strategic Planning in Two Art Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 43: 324-342.

The “Rich Gay”? Small Museums & Funding “Difficult” History

Kelsey Brow & Joshua Buckner

Kelsey Brow is the Executive Director of King Manor Museum in Jamaica, NY. Kelsey is a participant in the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Joshua Buckner is a Museum Curator for the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, VA. Joshua is a participant in the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

The notion of the “Rich Gay” is historically a pervasive cultural trope. History has painted pictures of “lifelong bachelors” and “spinsters” who are art collectors, theatre financiers, fashion gurus, or social advocates. Take, for example, the very popular re-boot of the television show Queer Eye1 that showcases five queer-identifying men transforming the lives of others by enhancing their wardrobe, home, and lifestyle without an explanation of cost or budget. But where is the money to curate queer museum exhibitions? Despite being fairly well represented in the cultural workforce, the LGBTQIA+2 community lacks significant representation in both museological scholarship and power at the trustee level. According to a 2016 Building Movement Project study of U.S. nonprofit workers, 21% of respondents self-identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (Thomas-Breitfeld & Kunreuther, 2016). This Virtual Issue looks into challenges and opportunities of funding LGBTQIA-identified curatorial projects about “challenging” topics or “difficult histories.” In particular, we’ll examine small museums — where money is always a struggle — and where such topics may not appeal to funders and board members, despite the representation of queer people in those entities.

A 2019 New York Times article discussing the scrutiny of board members in the museum field, revealed that “upward of one-fifth of [museum] annual budgets” rely on the support and power of their board members. In return for their generous donations, affluent board members or funders are often rewarded with new building additions named in their honor and unrestricted access to collections. Pressure to appeal to their interests (and wallets) often earns them considerable influence on what the museum does and does not present in exhibitions. For museums that want to engage with “difficult history” this can become a tug-of-war with conservative boards and community members who may dangle their support and checkbooks in return for controlling the topics covered in exhibitions and programs.

There is a need and a demand in the field for spaces that broaden the historical conversation and embrace the constant shift in society toward cultural diversity. How do smaller museums negotiate this balance and fund their exhibits? More and more, museums are becoming sites for discussions around social issues, inclusion, and diversity. At many sites, these conversations are geared towards horrific events like slavery or genocide, or interprete history from a different perspective, which can be challenging for conservative boards and/or audiences who are uncomfortable with questioning long-held beliefs or perceptions. In the book Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites, Julia Rose describes “difficult history” as “histories of oppression, violence, and trauma” (Rose, 2016, p. 25).

In this Virtual Issue, we looked at the record of research on museums addressing “difficult history” as it pertains to the LGBTQIA community. This community represents nearly a quarter of the museum workforce in the United States (Thomas-Breitfeld & Kunreuther, 2016). Also in the US, the American Alliance of Museums has a specific professional network, the LGBTQ+ Alliance, dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ museum workforce and is “committed to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and inquiry with particular respect to sexual orientation and gender identity within museums” (American Alliance of Museums, 2019). However, the level of diversity and inclusion does not seem to manifest in either exhibition content or scholarship. A review of the literature published in Curator using key words of “queer,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexuality,” “bixsexual,” “transgender,” and “intersex,” reveals one article that specifically addresses the LGBTQIA community in museums: Patrik Steorn’s 2012 article Curating Queer Heritage: Queer Knowledge and Museum Practice, which we discuss later in this article.

Why is there so little scholarly research focused around museums and the LGBTQIA+ community in the Curator archives? While LGBTQIA+ rights have been a major topic of discussion since the Stonewall riots and the often overlooked 1966 riots at Compton’s Cafe in San Francisco, scholarly museum work has only slowly begun to emerge in the last decade. The 2010 collection of essays in Gender, Sexuality, and Museums (Levin, 2010) and the book Interpreting LGBTQ History at Museums and Historic Sites published by the American Association of State and Local History (Ferentinos, 2014) broach this topic from an academic perspective, but this work has not been strongly represented in Curator. The authors of this Virtual Issue reached out to the current editor of Curator, John Fraser, to better understand why there is a lack of published work focused on the LGBTQIA+ community in the archives. Fraser, who is one of the editors of the frequently cited publication “Where is Queer?” a special issue of the journal Museums & Social Issues (Fraser & Heimlich, 2008), stated that the journal tries to be open and solicits papers focusing on this topic. However, he said the submissions rarely come across the journal’s desks. Today, museum studies programs churn out emerging museum professionals who focus on the social impact museums have on minority communities and want to make museums more inclusive. There is a demand for academic research on how museums can “queer” space, exhibitions focused on LGBTQIA+ historical persons, and policies on how museums can educate their staff and visitors on sexual orientation and gender expression topics. We call for museum professionals in the LGBTQIA+ community to submit to Curator and other scholarly journals. Now is the time to have discussions around how not only the gay and lesbian communities interpret museums, but also how transgender, non-binary, queer, two-spirit, and intersex persons see themselves within this field.

A search for “small museums” in the Curator archives brings up less than ten pieces written in the last decade. Many revolve around community curation, inclusivity, and visitor experience, but none discuss funding. Where financial concerns are mentioned, it is nothing beyond a sentence referencing grant funds secured for a single institution’s special project or noting that grant funds are needed to implement diversification strategies into practice (Smith, 2018; Fischer et al, 2017).

Changes in museum funding strategies tend to come from the top. In summarizing the evolution of museums and museum practice in his nearly fifty-year career, Tom L. Freudenheim, an editorial board member of Curator and a museum scholar who held leadership positions at the National Endowment for the Arts and several museums, discusses the “frighteningly pervasive” idea of a “museum as a money-making machine”  (Freudenheim, 2010). Freudenheim describes a decades-long shift in this power that now favors a broader range of constituents, including members of underrepresented communities, social justice seekers, and individuals who feel disenfranchised from the museum in their communities. As socially minded museum professionals working in smaller institutions, how do we convince board members and conservative local communities that engaging in what some may consider “difficult histories” is beneficial for both the museum and the community?

Co-author Joshua Buckner’s previous studies regarding incorporating LGBTQIA histories into museum settings, and how museums choose (or not choose) to discuss LGBTQIA histories, reveal several reasons many institutions are not comfortable discussing these histories. Many museums do not know how to approach discussing the topic, they do not understand it, or are not comfortable with claiming the authority to discuss the history of a community they do not belong to themselves (Buckner, 2016). This discomfort in discussing LGBTQIA histories in turn hinders visitors coming to museums seeking to find themselves represented in exhibits and programs. In Curating Queer Heritage: Queer Knowledge and Museum Practice, Patrik Steorn compares the work of two twentieth-century Swedish artists, both highlighting nudes (one nude females and the other nude males). Respectively, one is seen as a collection of masterpieces, while the other is seen as a collection of curiosities and hidden away in the museum. The result is a heteronormative narrative in the museum, and as Steorn explains, illustrates “how a heterosexual privilege has biased aesthetic judgments and…led to the exclusion of homoerotic motifs…” (Steorn, 2012, p. 357). This example shows how a museum can exclude queer history, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by not willingly opening the lines of communication around the topic.

In contrast, homosexuality and aesthetics coalesce at the Alice Austen House, a nationally registered LGBTQ historic site on Staten Island, a borough of New York City. Alice Austen, one of the United States’ earliest non-studio female photographers, lived in the Staten Island house in a loving relationship with Gertrude Tate for 30 years ( Their home is now part of the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative through the National Park Service that identifies “places and events associated with the story of LGBTQ Americans for inclusion in the parks and programs of the National Park Service” (National Park Service, 2014). Although recognized by the National Park Service, the Alice Austen House is run by a small, independent non-profit incorporated in Staten Island. For context, Staten Island was the only one of New York City’s five boroughs to have the majority vote for the conservative Republican candidate, Donald Trump, in the 2016 presidential election and has long been known as a conservative anomaly in liberal New York City (Rubenstein, 2019).

Co-author Kelsey Brow spoke with Executive Director of the Alice Austin House museum, Victoria Munro, about challenges with funding LGBTQIA history in a politically conservative environment. Board members, local corporations, and local council members are significant sources of funding for New York City’s many small historic houses. According to Munro, asking conservative councilmembers for discretionary funds for an LGBTQIA-identified historic site can be daunting. It is hard for small museums to compete with pride centers (community centers that provide a variety of services like counseling, support groups, or medical information) for limited funding. The LGBTQIA+ community tends to prioritize what it sees as direct services like health and safety. Museums, Munro states, “do provide a direct service” to the queer community by allowing people within the community to see themselves reflected in history. Munro further points out that they also provide a safe space, particularly for young people to go without being labeled if they are not out3 or don’t have supportive families. As museum workers well know, it is difficult to communicate the quantitative impact of our work in order to gain political or monetary support. Even more difficult is measuring the impact of queer historical sites or LGBTQIA-engaged exhibitions, as these topics have yet to be substantially dealt with by museums, visitor studies, and museology.

The year 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which occurred in 1969 at Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The riots began after a New York City Police raid on the bar and led to nearly a week of protests in the area. With this major historical milestone for the LGBTQIA community, many museums in the United States began to highlight the history, struggle, and visibility (or lack thereof) of the LGBTQIA community by providing spaces for conversations and exhibitions on societal issues. For example, the traveling exhibition, Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement, created by the Newseum in Washington, D.C., is currently touring throughout the United States and portrays historic moments in the fight for gay rights through artifacts and historical videos. But at $65,000, exclusive of shipping and insurance, this traveling exhibit is far out of the price range of small museums. The 2019 exhibition Stonewall 50 at the New-York Historical Society also commemorated the anniversary with nearly a year of programming and related smaller exhibitions from their archives and collections. Both of these exhibitions were funded, at least in part, by major banks — the Newseum exhibit by Wells Fargo and the New-York Historical exhibit by Bank of America. Bank of America prides itself on being “the first financial institution to incorporate sexual orientation into [their] non-discrimination policies,” making them a strong ally for the LGBTQIA community (Verducci, 2019). Because of a smaller profile, lower foot traffic, and lack of comparative prestige, it is difficult for smaller museums to secure sponsorships from large corporations like these.

So how does one fund LGTBQIA-related exhibitions in small museums in spite of funder opposition? As Munro puts it, “you have to think out of the box.” This is good advice for all small museums, but particularly for those that want to engage in topics their community may want to see, but may be at odds with conservative-leaning funding sources. Substantive partnerships with other organizations and sponsorships from LGBTQIA-allied companies could open small museums to larger income streams that allow for more flexibility to engage with broader exhibit narratives. These partners are not as hard to find as you might think, even if you’re a small museum without a trained marketing professional. A quick internet search for “lgbt market research” brings up helpful websites such as Community Marketing & Insights ( or Gay Ad Network ( There are also local LGBT Chambers of Commerce across the United States, and in many other countries as well, that offer networking opportunities and many other resources.

As the LGBTQIA community becomes more visible and accepted in popular culture, it is imperative that museums work with the community to tell more inclusive and accurate stories about the past, even if they face adverse pressure from conservative funders. In their 2019 article “Engaging Audiences with Difficult Pasts,” Black and Reynolds wrote that “being confronted by perspectives that are so very different to one’s own understanding is unavoidably uncomfortable and, in some cases, may risk further entrenching divisions. However…a more-rounded engagement…and an awareness of its constructive objectives certainly help allay any such fears and encourage a willingness to accept challenging narratives of the past” (Reynolds, 2019). It is also critical that scholarly museum journals, like Curator, whose scope is to provide a “forum for exploration and debate of the latest issues, practices, and policies…of current concern of the community” publish articles that specifically address the impact museums have on the LGBTQIA+ community and how queer museum professionals are changing how the world views museums. As Fraser stated, the literature “is an important lens that directs where future attention should be paid” and that attention can be focused on the LGBTQIA+ community (Fraser, 2020). And to fund exhibits that discuss those narratives? Museums need to make their case to fund queer exhibts not only to board members, donors, or local politicians, but also to the LGTBQIA community, who has not traditionally been represented in museums or museological discourse and has carved out other places of interest and influence. Maybe the “rich gay” is out there in real life, just waiting to be asked to fund an exhibit in a small museum.


  1. For information about Queer Eye, see For more about the history of the series, see
  2. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (and/or questioning), intersex, asexual (and/or allies). Source:
  3. Being “outed” is related to exposing or revealing the sexuality or gender identity of an individual. Being “out” is often considered to be a major milestone for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.


American Alliance of Museums. (2019). LGBTQ Alliance Welcoming Guidelines for Museums. Retrieved from

Aslan, I. (2019). New-York Historical Society Commemorates 50th anniversary of Stonewall Uprising with Special Exhibitions and Programming, New-York Historical Society, Press Release. Retrieved from

Black, G. & Reynolds, C. (2019). Engaging Audiences with Difficult Pasts: The Voices of ‘68 Project at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Curator. Retrieved from

Buckner, J. (2016). How Can We Talk About It? Disrupting Heteronormativity Through Historic House Museums. University of Washington.

Ferentinos, S. (2014). Interpreting LGBT history at museums and historic sites (Vol. 4). Rowman & Littlefield.

Fraser, J. (2020). “Information about Submissions on LGBTQIA+ Topics.” Message to the authors. 14 August 2020. E-mail.

Freudenheim, T. (2010). Fifty Museum Years, and then Some. Curator: The Museum Journal, 50: 55-62. Retrieved from

Gibson, S. (2017). “Let’s talk about sex”: visitor comments in Contraception: Uncovering the collection of Dame Margaret Sparrow. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60: 47-65. Retrieved from

Levin, A. K. (Ed.). (2010). Gender, sexuality and museums: A Routledge reader. Routledge.

Fraser, J.& Heimlich, J. (Eds.) (2008). Where is Queer? [Special issue]. Museums & Social Issues: A Journal of Reflective Discourse. 3(1) 161- 285.

National Park Service. (2014). Secretary Jewell Announces New National Park Service Theme Study to Interpret, Commemorate Sites Related to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender History. Retrieved from

Pogrebin, R., Harris, E.A, & Bowley, G. (2019), “New Scrutiny of Museum Board Takes Aim at World of Wealth and Status.” New York Times.

Rose, J. (2016). Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rubenstein, D. (2019), Staten Island, Trump’s New York redoubt, talks succession, Politico. Retrieved from

Smith, R. (2012), Searching for “Community”: Making English Rural History Collections Relevant Today. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55: 51-63. Retrieved from

Steorn, P. (2012). Curating Queer Heritage: Queer Knowledge and Museum Practice. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55: 355-365. Retrieved from

Thomas-Breitfeld, S. & Kunreuther, F. (2016). Working at the Intersections: LGBTQ Nonprofit Staff and the Racial Leadership Gap. Retrieved from

Welcome to the Museum: Reflecting on Representation & Inclusion in Museum Evaluation

Alice Anderson, Ed.M. & Michelle A. Mileham, Ph.D.

Alice Anderson is the Manager of Audience Research and Impact at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota, where she studies what people think, feel, and learn through informal learning experiences. She has worked as a researcher and evaluator in the fields of science and art museums, educational technology, and makerspaces. Alice is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Michelle Mileham is Director of Education at Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she integrates research and evaluation into daily educational programs. Michelle serves as the Vice Chair for the American Alliance of Museums’ Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation. Michelle is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.


What does it mean for a museum to be welcoming in 2020? And how has the answer to this question changed in the past 20, 50, 100 years? Who defines what welcoming means? As museum professionals, practitioners, and researchers, we contemplate this question through myriad lenses — location, admission prices, physical spaces, languages, staff presence, etc. In this Virtual Issue, we examine the concept of museum welcoming through the lens of evaluation and research. If museums communicate that all visitors should feel welcome, how can that be measured? Are the exhibits, programs, and museum experiences truly welcoming for all visitors? In what ways is evaluation part of the process of examining welcoming?

We came to this topic through reflecting on and reckoning with the power our positions afford us and the socio-cultural privilege we hold in this field. In terms of how we present in the world, we both identify as white, cis-gender, able-bodied women. Our histories with museums are positive; we both were raised by families who saw museums as learning sites, and when we visited, we saw museum staff who looked like us. We both felt (and still feel) invited and comfortable in museum spaces. At the same time, we recognize that museum spaces have been created by and for people who share some of the characteristics of our identities, and how what can feel welcoming to one group can feel oppressive, inflexible, and alienating to others.

Clearly, our childhood experiences in museums influenced our career trajectories, but that’s not surprising. When museum professionals were asked in a study to tell stories about a pivotal learning experience they had or had observed in museums, many cited specific childhood experiences. It was these experiences that ultimately led them to pursue museum careers (Spock, 2000). The museum memories shared in Michael Spock’s article revolve “around a collection, an object, an exhibit, a chain of related experiences, and an extended program” (p. 21). The stories represented both museum professionals who, like us, frequented museums in their childhood, as well as stories from professionals who didn’t have these experiences before participation in museum-based programs. Either way, the article suggests that museum memories can have a lasting impact and that they develop from a myriad of museum experiences. We believe evaluators must be attuned to the multitude of experiences visitors have both in and out of the museum. We therefore must design tools that measure learning and memories through the five categories proposed by Spock (collections, objects, exhibits, chain of experiences, extended programs) and beyond, as well as over multiple museum experiences.

Looking through the lens of our identity and personal experiences, we ask what are our museum evaluation practices missing? As museums, exhibits, and programs address diversity, equity, access, and inclusion, are evaluation practices and methodologies keeping up? Can museum evaluation practices and methodologies help lead transformation?

Diversity in the Current U.S. Museum Field

While we recognize that Curator: The Museum Journal is an international publication, we examine diversity in the museum field in the context of the United States because that is where we live and work. Therefore, our analysis of diversity is focused on a system that privileges white, cis-gendered, and able-bodied men. Systems of power and privilege naturally differ in other contexts, but we do not discuss them here.

In the spirit of taking an inward look to examine these issues, we searched for data on the diversity of museum or informal education evaluators, specifically the representation of people of color, academic degrees, gender, and age here in the US where we were both born and raised. Few comprehensive reports exist or are not publicly shared. But from what we did find, it is evident that museum professionals do not necessarily reflect the diversity of the United States. In some reports of US museum professionals that draw on data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, we see that while gender parity has increased in the past 50 years, men still hold a higher percentage of leadership positions than women, and women make 79 cents for every dollar men in similar positions earn (Baldwin, 2019). If we consider women and race, the story is bleaker. Black and Latina women in the museum profession make 60 cents and 55 cents, respectively, for every dollar a white man makes (Baldwin, 2016). These disparities are deeply rooted in systemic and structural issues of racism, sexism, and classism, and museum evaluators are not immune. Our field prioritizes higher education and specific types of analytic, written, and oral communication skills.

The most comprehensive report is the 2017 National Museum Salary Survey published by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), which includes many demographic characteristics except race and ethnicity. While this resource proved useful for our argument in this Virtual Issue, we do feel it is important to highlight some challenges of using this report. First and foremost, this report is behind a paywall and not easily accessible to all in the field. Second, the findings represent 1,060 of 6,965 institutions who were invited to participate, meaning sample sizes for some specific museum positions are too low to make broad generalizations. Finally, as professionals in the field, we recognize that many museum positions (i.e., educators, admissions, and grant managers) are engaged in evaluation work under the “other duties as assigned” umbrella.

Although multiple roles were captured in this survey, the AAM study does not offer specific information about those who identify as evaluators as a secondary or tertiary role in their museum. What the report does tell us is that of the museums who have Visitor Research & Evaluation Director or Manager positions, 75% are full-time employees, nearly 89% identify as female, the median age is 40, and 54.5% hold a Master’s degree or higher. The majority (56.3%) of Visitor Research & Evaluation Assistants or Associates represented in this report are full-time employees. Just over 72% identify as female, the median age is 32, and about 53% hold a 4-year degree and about 42% hold a Master’s degree or higher. The field as a whole (as represented in this report) is 83% full-time employees, 67% identify as female, nearly 45% hold a 4-year degree, and 44% hold a Master’s degree or higher. Therefore, research and evaluation positions tend to proportionally have the highest level of academic achievement across all positions reported in the survey. Again, we caution the use of the data for these positions because the sample size is low, but this report provided the only comprehensive data we could find. Unfortunately, the AAM report doesn’t include information on race or ethnicity across museum professions, but based on this report we argue that those currently in museum research and evaluation jobs may be there because they benefited from systematic racism and/or classism. As research and evaluation positions in museums continue to expand, as we hope they do, the field needs to reform hiring practices to be more equitable and inclusive.

In recent years, emphasis has been placed on equitable hiring practices, including offering paid internships and giving weight to skills over degrees earned (see the AAM’s blog posts on this topic). Changing the workplace culture only starts with looking at our hiring practices. We also need to examine which staff are being promoted, staff attrition rates, and especially workplace culture. Ultimately, we need to create pathways for people of all backgrounds and identities to enter and advance through the museum profession, and we would argue for more diversity in museum evaluation specifically.

In spite of good intentions, we find the literature still indicates that consistent barriers to diversify museum professions still exist, including the use of inequitable language, overlooking knowledgeable staff from all departments, and lack of career-growth opportunities (Baldwin, 2016; Fischer, et al., 2017; Gilbert, 2016). And the AAM data seem to suggest that our evaluation practices are no better. For example, do surveys still use language that isn’t equitable? Are we measuring only what the institution, our personal identities, and the field recognize as important? Without diversity among museum evaluators, our practices — from hiring, to exhibitions, to programs — will never be truly equitable. In order to address gaps in evaluation, we first have to consider what identities dominate our field and our practice.

What Identities Have Been Encouraged and Which Overlooked?

The archives of Curator offer a fascinating history of museum evaluation and which identities have been most investigated. Browsing these early studies and commentaries, it appears that prior to the 1990s, demographic questions included in evaluation or audience research studies were limited. In a review of the museum evaluation literature by Gloria Zyskowski (1983), demographic characteristics used in most studies appear to have consisted of sex, age, education level, and prior museum visitation. This leaves out key identity variables such as race, disability, and household income. By the 1990s, a few articles appeared in Curator which explicitly discussed diversity of visitors, such as characteristics related to disability and how those relate to accessibility issues (Majewski & Bunch, 1998; Kalisher, 1998, Davidson, Heald & Hein, 1991) and racial and ethnic minority populations (Kahn, 1994). This suggests that for many decades, what we knew about the effectiveness of museum experiences — whatever the metric — did not include knowledge about important aspects of identity, particularly the identities of those that have been historically marginalized in the United States.

Moving beyond the archives of Curator, a search of the audience-research focused journal Visitor Studies (and its predecessor, Visitor Behavior) revealed several articles discussing what identities motivate visitors to come to museums. Motivation and identity go hand-in-hand, as described by John Falk with his five identity-related visitor motivations (Falk, 2006, 2011; Falk, Heimlich & Bronnenkant, 2008), otherwise referred to as little “i” — or situational — identities. Dawson & Jensen (2011) critique Falk’s model, expressing concerns about “side-stepping of standard demographics or contextual factors, such as race/ethnicity, gender, class, and age” (p. 129). Understanding visitor motivations illuminates who is, and who isn’t, coming through the doors, but these motivations do not necessarily address how welcoming, or not, the museum is to its diverse community. Exploring the archives of the historic publication, Visitor Behavior, drew our attention to an entire 1993 issue (Volume 8, Issue 2), available as open access, addressing Black and African-American people in museums and multicultural pluralism. This issue articulates racial differences of museum visits, seeks to understand who does and doesn’t visit art museums and why, and sheds light on understanding leisure decisions of African-Americans. Much of what is discussed in these articles, including how to engage more diverse audiences, are discussions still occurring today amongst museum professionals.

Funding priorities have also shaped museum evaluation and its focus over the years. Much of what is known about museum learning in the United States comes from findings and measurement tools rooted in the sciences. This is likely due to the US government’s sizable influence in and notable funding preferences for informal science learning above other types of learning among federal agencies, which has had an effect on the museum field. Here we look at three different government agencies, which have distinct priorities: the National Science Foundation promotes the progress of science at museums and a wide range of other organizations, the Institute of Museum and Library Services supports museums and libraries but does not specifically emphasize science, and the National Endowment for the Arts supports creativity and the arts in museums and other organizations.

In the 2018 fiscal year budget, the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal Science Learning (AISL) program, which has historically supported museums, granted $62.7 million dollars in award funding to informal science learning efforts (Harris, 2017). In the same fiscal year, the Institute for Museum and Library Services reported that all grants to museums (including zoos, science, children’s, and arts museums) totaled $34.7 million, while the National Endowment for the Arts agency’s Arts Research grants only totaled $550,000. Though a small snapshot that does not include private funding for evaluation that comes from foundations and operating budgets, these numbers do indicate the disproportionate amount of funding for the sciences. This is especially important in the public sphere which requires public reporting and rigorous methodologies. Furthermore, as the emergence of new funding initiatives focused on diversity in federal funding (e.g. NSF INCLUDES) suggest, the primary recipients of science programming and learning research have often been white, which has likely affected museum evaluation as well.

With regards to the outcomes that these studies have focused on, there is a huge amount of literature focusing on the development of identity in the STEM fields and future workforce development. In 2009, the influential United States NGO National Academy of Sciences released the report, “Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places and Pursuits.” The following year, an entire issue of Curator (Volume 53, Issue 2) was devoted to responses by museum professionals to the report, from the perspective of other disciplines (art, history, digital media), programming, and assessment. The report, and these reflections, remain influential 10 years later.

Driving the Field Forward: What Can We Do?

Museum-based evaluations are often highly localized and contextual, which has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, findings do not always easily translate to other settings. On the other, the ability to customize evaluation questions and processes to the participants and program — and above all, be grounded in the cultural context in which the evaluation is occurring — are imperative for participants to feel open to collaborate. The practice of Culturally Responsive Evaluation is guided by a belief that cultures understand, articulate, and use evaluation in different ways, and most of all, know what processes and outcomes are best for their cultural group. While no two communities are exactly the same, as we think about creating and evaluating welcoming spaces, we need to be more intentional, anti-racist, and empathetic, as suggested by recent articles cited in this Virtual Issue.

Elaine Gurian (2014) offered sets of critical questions for museum staff to reflect on their assumptions about visitors, staff, knowledge, and community. In 2016, colleagues across the museum sector gathered for the first Museums and Race convening (Fischer, Anila & Moore, 2017), a meeting centered around systematic racism in museums. What came out of the meeting was a list of recommendations for self-work specific to white people, people of color, allies of museum professionals, and institutions. And in the Empathetic Museum (Jennings et al, 2019), the authors suggest that museum institutions communicate a “body language” that impacts visitors. The institutional identity is made up of all of the individuals who work there, and must overcome the museum fields’ traditions of siloing, stasis, and silence. They write, “True change will only come through an honest assessment of internal culture and external practices — including a process of decolonization and the rejection of systemic white supremacy” (p. 13). The authors of these articles, representing many different museums, positions, and personal identities urge museum professionals — especially those who have always felt welcome and comfortable — to critically examine our personal and institutional identities before we make any more evaluative claims of being welcoming to all.


A museum is more than its collection, exhibits, and programs. Museums are about, by, and for people. Museum staff need to represent the communities they serve and their voices need to be valued in order to disrupt the authority and power typically held by museum leadership. Evaluations and the work of evaluators can help disrupt that authority and power by facilitating collaboration to articulate goals, documenting outcomes, and leading collective meaning making (e.g. Korn, 2017). Doing so increases the likelihood that “problematic exhibits and activities will be recognized and revised before being deployed… helping make the museum a more welcoming place for visitors of all backgrounds” (Gilbert, 2016, p. 137 [emphasis added by authors]). It is imperative that we embed these practices into our collaborations so that all partners see their contributions included.

We call for museum evaluators, ourselves included, to examine their personal identity and history with museums, and to recognize biases in our own work. Based on what we have learned through reviewing the archives of Curator and our own self-work, we recognize that some issues are structural, some societal, some cultural, and some personal. We encourage all museum professionals to interrogate their own biases and assumptions using resources such as MASS Action, review and discuss culturally responsive evaluation practices, and utilize tools included in articles referenced above (specifically Gurian, 2014 and Fischer, et al., 2017). We must resist what has felt “normal” for many of us who have always felt welcome to truly transform our museums to be welcoming to all.


Baldwin, J. (2020, February 10). If You Don’t Close the Museum Salary Gap, You Perpetuate It. [Blog Post] Retrieved from:

Baldwin, J. (Ed.) (2016) A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace. [Position Paper]. Retrieved from:

Dawson, E. & Jensen, E. (2011). Towards a contextual turn in visitor studies: Evaluating visitor segmentation and identity-related motivations. Visitor Studies, 14(2), 127-140.

Doering, Z. & Storksdieck, M. (2010) Special Issue on Science [Special Issue]. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(2).

Davidson, B., Heald, C. L., & Hein, G. E. (1991). Increased exhibit accessibility through multisensory interaction. Curator: The Museum Journal, 34(4), 273-290.

Falk, J. H. (2006). An identity‐centered approach to understanding museum learning. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49(2), 151-166.

Falk, J. (2011). Contextualizing Falk’s identity-related visitor motivation model. Visitor Studies, 14(2), 141-157.

Falk, J. H., Heimlich, J., & Bronnenkant, K. (2008). Using identity‐related visit motivations as a tool for understanding adult zoo and aquarium visitors’ meaning‐making. Curator: The Museum Journal, 51(1), 55-79.

Fischer, D., Anila, S., & Moore, P. (2017). Coming Together to Address Systemic Racism in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60(1), 23-31.

Gilbert, L. (2016). “Loving, knowing ignorance”: A problem for the educational mission of museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 59(2), 125-140.

Gurian, E. H. (2014). Intentional Civility. Curator: The Museum Journal, 57(4), 473-484.

Harris, L. A. (2017). The National Science Foundation: FY2018 Appropriations and Funding History. (Report 45009). Congressional Research Service.

Jennings, G., Cullen, J., Bryant, J., Bryant‐Greenwell, K., Mann, S., Hove, C., & Zepeda, N. (2019). The Empathetic Museum: A New Institutional Identity. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62(4), 505-526.

Kahn, D. M. (1994). Diversity and the Museum of London. Curator: The Museum Journal, 37(4), 240-250.

Kalisher, E. (1998). Reexamining diversity: A look at the deaf community in museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 41(1), 13-35.

Korn, R. (2007). The case for holistic intentionality. Curator: The Museum Journal, 50(2), 255-264.

Majewski, J., & Bunch, L. (1998). The expanding definition of diversity: accessibility and disability culture issues in museum exhibitions. Curator: The Museum Journal, 41(3), 153-160.

Spock, M. (2000). “When I Grow Up I’d Like to Work in a Place Like This”: Museum Professionals’ Narratives of Early Interest in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 43(1), 19-31.

Zyskowski, G. (1983). A review of literature on the evaluation of museum programs. Curator: The Museum Journal, 26(2), 121-128.

Defining the Museum: Struggling with a New Identity

Brenda Salguero

Brenda Salguero is the College Program Coordinator at MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement) a program nestled within the Department of Diversity and Engagement at the University of California, Office of the President. Her passion and work focuses on speaking, tackling, and solving issues of representation of people of color in the museum and STEM fields. Brenda is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

What is a museum? The International Council of Museums (ICOM) first defined it in 1946 as: “The word ‘museums’ includes all collections open to the public, of artistic, technical, scientific, historical or archaeological material, including zoos and botanical gardens, but excluding libraries, except insofar as they maintain permanent exhibition rooms” (ICOM, n.d.).

This seems very simple and straightforward.

In September 2019, ICOM unveiled their proposed two-paragraph definition:

“Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing” (Adams, 2019).

A much longer and weightier definition, it unleashed a flurry of controversy from museum professionals all over the world. The Chair of ICOM France, Juliette Raoul-Duval, criticized the definition, calling it an “ideological manifesto” (Noce, 2019). As a lover of controversy, I gravitated to the online discussions and commentary museum professionals had about the definition.

There have been a series of arguments as to why the definition is inappropriate, from it being too narrowly focused (not all museums are non-profits, after all) to the response from some people that museums are not political or social justice spaces. I saw the definition as the natural evolution of today’s museum identity, one that has been building for some time.

I find these arguments, particularly the idea that museums are not political or social justice spaces, baffling since museums were a catalyst for my own identity. Growing up, my parents neglected to teach me much about my own Central American culture. “You are an American” was always their answer to my curiosity. On the other hand, museums helped me connect with Latin American artists; even if their work was sparsely represented in art museums, I managed to find it and claim it as a part of me. Because of this experience, in my own life, museums have been a place for social justice and human dignity. So why are so many people offended — or, at the least, put off — by this part of the definition?

In the following series of articles, found within the pages of Curator: The Museum Journal, I catalogue an evolving definition for museums and what that could mean for the future of ICOM’s new definition.

Past Definitions

“…today there is apparently much confusion as to what a museum is or what it should be” (Colbert, 1961, p. 138).

Edwin H. Colbert’s article “What is a museum” was first published in 1961 and outlines the two core characteristics of a museum: preservation of objects and interpretation. Colbert states, “unless an institution has objects in its possession which it interprets through research or display or both, it is not a proper museum” (p. 139).

This definition no longer applies to today’s institutions; children’s museums, online museums, and other institutions would not qualify. Even ICOM’s definition at around the same time would not encompass today’s institutions:

“ICOM shall recognise as a museum any permanent institution which conserves and displays, for purposes of a study, education and enjoyment, collections of objects of cultural or scientific significance” (ICOM, n.d.).

In a 2010 article, Elaine Heumann Gurian goes over several more definitions different countries and museum organizations have created. In addition, Heumann Gurian suggested that museums might be better understood through categories that describe their emphasis. For example, some museums focus on their objects, others prioritize the nation state, etc. Heumann Gurian goes on to say that these categories are here to provide guidance and discussion and are not meant to be the final say.

And if that were not enough, we also need to consider each nation’s legal definitions. For the sake of brevity, here is a shortened version of the United States legal definition of museums:

  1. Museum means a public, tribal, or private nonprofit institution which is organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational, cultural heritage, or aesthetic purposes and which, using a professional staff…
  2. The term “museum” in paragraph (a) of this section includes museums that have tangible and digital collections. Museums include, but are not limited to, the following types of institutions, if they otherwise satisfy the provisions of this section.
  3. For the purposes of this section, an institution uses a professional staff if it employs at least one staff member, or the full time equivalent, whether paid or unpaid primarily engaged in the acquisition, care, or exhibition to the public of objects owned or used by the institution (Definition of a museum, 2019).

A 1983 article in Curator by Raymond S. August, “Museum: A Legal Definition,” dives deeper into the history of the word museum and its relation with the law. August makes a point to differentiate between the legal definition and how museums actually define themselves:

“But the courts have not considered the museum definition in the last thirty years, while museum personnel and museum associations have actively been reexamining the definition. Most of the elements rejected by the courts in the past have been adopted by many within the museum community” (p. 145).

My review of Curator’s archives in the Wiley Online Library and other sources showed there is no lack of definitions that attempt to outline what makes an institution a museum. Because of this, there is no consensus on the correct terminology either! I was drowning in a world of verbiage; it all began swirling in my head, shape-shifting into nonsense.

All it proved is that we have never had the answer — we still do not know how to truly define what a museum is, or what role it plays today. This led me to my next exploration: how have museums changed and why does ICOM’s new definition anger some people?

A Bunch of Meaningless Words

After combing through internet comments and articles, a few reasons for peoples’ anger with the proposed ICOM definition appeared repeatedly:

  1. It’s too narrow
  2. It’s too long
  3. It’s too political

I agree that the definition is too narrow, as it does exclude museums without collections. However, so did the previous ICOM definition from 2007, which stated:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment (ICOM, n.d.).

Some of the same critiques for the new proposed definition also apply to all previous iterations; for instance, not all museums collect objects.

Additionally, in an editorial piece in 2019, John Fraser states that this definition excludes many museums, stating that some museums are not interested in the “consequential influence on human dignity, equality, or planetary well-being” (p. 502).

This makes it seem like museums seek to protect their objects over the well-being of humanity. However, their activities in education and research show otherwise, since those actions are done in the service of humanity. After all, what power would these objects have without the human stories behind them, and the way people interact with them today?

I agree with Fraser’s analysis that the ICOM definition is steeped in aspirational platitudes that museums could easily twist and render meaningless. As I see it, the issue at the core of this disagreement is that the definition serves an ethical model for museums to try to follow, as opposed to an actual definition.

Many museums blow hot air about diversity and inclusion. Having worked at a museum, these words, to me, have also been rendered meaningless after so many years of empty promises. For instance, take the fact that we have had little traction diversifying the field in the United States, despite new policies, conference sessions, and workshops devoted to this topic. A survey from 2015 revealed that 84% of museum staff is white (Bates, 2018). In 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hired its 10th white male director out of 10 in a row, despite their policy dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and equal access (Sayej, 2018). Ultimately, what power do these initiatives have without any meaningful action behind them?

In my experience, museums (and so many other institutions!) are very good at setting aspirational goals and never reaching them. I want to see museum boards, staff, and directors take action within their institutions and make the buzzwords diversity, social justice, and inclusion powerful again. While the proposed ICOM definition is a sign that this movement is being acknowledged, a call for ethical action is not a defining term for what a museum is; rather, it simply lists an aspirational set of goals for institutions to achieve.

On the other hand, there are museum professionals who decry the new ICOM definition because they feel it is too political. Take the following comment from a museum association blog post:

15.08.2019, 13:24
“To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘full of sound and fluffery, signifying nothing’. Deary me, what bland, patronising stuff! Has anyone ever heard of plain English? And don’t they know museums have been inclusive, democratic and ‘polyphonic’ (just how inclusive is that as a word to the mass of people who visit museums) for decades. This is nothing new, people! Why on earth spend huge amounts of money fixing something that doesn’t need fixing??

Oh, and museums, in my opinion, should NEVER be influenced and manipulated by political mores. We’ve been open and democratic for decades, and are safe havens for all without all of this ‘social justice’ pressure, which is often downright patronising. If it appears museums have any kind of political agenda then we become as untrustworthy as any politician or government. We should tell the truth as it is without an agenda. We deal in facts. By doing that we grant ou[r] audiences the right to think, ponder, engage and debate without being preachy, and what’s even more frightening, manipulative.”

Museums are not inclusive. Museums are political by their very nature and have always had an agenda. Because of the model they were founded on, they still reflect the dominant culture. As museums widen their priorities and begin to actively diversify their staff, collections, and exhibitions, they will seem more and more political to those who adhere to the status quo. Museums deal in fact, but often highlight and feature certain perspectives above others. Take, for instance, the issue of the overrepresentation of male birds in natural history museums’ ornithology collections (Ashby, 2017)! Ashby states, “Museums are a product of their own history, and that of the societies they are embedded in. They are not apolitical, and they are not entirely scientific. As such, they don’t really represent reality” (paras. 3). Narratives in museums are written by people who are not necessarily from the same background or history they are writing about (Coxall, 2000). This historically has been the case, where white curators have controlled the stories and characters of the past (Hollander, 2019).

Ultimately, there are critiques of the ICOM definition with which I can agree, while I vehemently disagree with others’ reactionary and ignorant (of history!) comments.

ICOM’s definition is fiery and bold, and the anger people are expressing is a sign of change. The proposed definition reflects an aggressive new approach to museums, one that is actively working to challenge, push, and acknowledge widening priorities and stakeholders.

But I have a suggestion.

We Strive

Ultimately, the 2019 ICOM definition of museums yells one thing to me: we need to change! Museums have been discussing the shift in demographic changes for decades, yet here in 2020 the needle has barely shifted towards better representation and diversity.

This definition feels like a final acknowledgment that museums must change, even if they have to be dragged, kicking and screaming. Change or die! In that spirit, I propose creating a blended version of the definitions already presented by ICOM, one that is both descriptive and aspirational — and is clear about the difference. My additions are bolded below:

Any institution which conserves or displays, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, materials of cultural or scientific significance. We strive to be participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for our diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.”

Including “any institution…” also creates a much more inclusive definition, which acknowledges museums without collections, such as virtual museums. I also reintroduced a section (“for the purposes of study…”) from the 2001 ICOM definition.

Changing the word “objects” to “materials” is an attempt at acknowledging the different types of collections that exist. Yet “materials” still might not accurately represent institutions with living collections, like aquariums.

Adding “we strive” creates a collective goal while keeping snippets of older definitions. This will also more accurately reflect where museums currently stand; they are attempting to be open and inclusive, while still upholding aspects of white supremacy.

Dropping in “our” calls for a stronger connection between communities and museums, pointing to the need to demolish the wall between us and them. Diverse communities belong in museums, and museums belong in diverse communities.

Keeping phrases like social justice and global equality delivers a statement to naysayers who claim that museums are apolitical spaces. Museums’ importance and far-reaching influence makes their work in the arenas of social justice and global equality imperative. Museums must continue to strive towards this goal in order to thrive.

Is this definition the perfect solution? No. I do not think we will ever reach a perfect consensus and satisfy everyone. Perhaps we need to refocus our efforts and stop attempting to come up with the perfect definition. Instead, a simple aspirational statement can work as a guiding star, to serve as a touchpoint between all types of institutions. We can then focus our efforts on actions, on creating spaces that truly serve and represent our communities.

After all, isn’t that the point?


Adams, G. K. (2019, July 31). ICOM unveils new museum definitions. Retrieved March 3, 2020, from

Ashby, Jack. (2017, December 20) The Hidden Biases That Shape Natural History Museums. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from

August, R.S. (1983). Museum: A Legal Definition. Curator: The Museum Journal, 26: 137-153. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1983.tb00602.x

Bates, K. G. (2018, April 13). Not Enough Color In American Art Museums. Retrieved March 29, 2020, from

Colbert, E.H. (1961), What is a Museum? Curator: The Museum Journal, 4: 138-146. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1961.tb01110.x

Coxall, H. (2000). “‘Whose Story Is It Anyway?’ Language and Museums.” Journal of Museum Ethnography, (12), 87-100. Retrieved May 8, 2020, from

Definition of a museum, 2 C.F.R. § 3187.3 (2019).

ICOM. (n.d.). Development of the Museum Definition according to ICOM Statutes (2007-1946). Retrieved March 3, 2020, from

Fraser, J. (2019). A Discomforting Definition of Museum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62: 501-504. doi:10.1111/cura.12345

Gurian, E.H. (2002). Choosing among the Options: An Opinion about Museum Definitions. Curator: The Museum Journal, 45: 75-88. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2002.tb01182.x

Haynes, S. (2019, September 9). Why a Plan to Redefine the Meaning of ‘Museum’ Is Stirring Up Controversy. Retrieved March 3, 2020, from

Hollander, A. (2019, December 23). Museums & Truth. The Truth is, there is More Than one Truth! Retrieved May 7, 2020, from

Noce, V. (2019, August 19). What exactly is a museum? Icom comes to blows over new definition. Retrieved March 3, 2020, from

Sayej, N. (2018, April 16). Diversity in spotlight as Met museum hires 10th white male director in a row. Retrieved March 29, 2020, from

Watkins, C.A. (1994). Are Museums Still Necessary? Curator: The Museum Journal, 37: 25-35. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1994.tb01004.x

The Human Condition: Health, Wellness, & Emotional Connection in Museums

Abigail Diaz & Sunewan Paneto

Abigail Diaz is the Director of Education & Programs at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. She is also a certified ADA Coordinator with a passion for making museums places for all people. Abigail is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Sunewan Paneto is a senior research and evaluation assistant at the Museum of Science, Boston. Her work focuses on how emotions can impact visitors’ museum experiences. Sunewan is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.


Health and wellness are an integral part of the human condition. The articles curated for this Virtual Issue center around how museums have addressed illness, disability, death and overall health through their programs, exhibits, and collections — with a particular lens on how museum staff and visitors have responded emotionally to these experiences. Highlighted articles discuss museums and their role in creating emotional connections such as empathy and compassion around these topics. As Myers Jr. and colleagues write in their 2004 article about the emotional experience of watching animals at a zoo, “Emotion is multidimensional: it focuses on a person’s core goals; directs attention and interest; arouses the body for action; and integrates social group and cultural factors. It is thus a central component of meaning‐making” (p. 299). The authors of this Virtual Issue advocate for the power that emotional connections can provide — particularly as they relate to health.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic ever present in our minds and actions as we write these words in April 2020, the articles presented here stress the importance of emotional connections more than ever for the entire museum field including both staff and visitors. Empathy-building and emotionally intelligent work can deepen interactions within the museum. Learning experiences are enhanced and resonate long after a visit is over. Most importantly, stirring the emotions of museum stakeholders has a greater potential to impact action outside of the museum walls.

Although there are a variety of medical and health-focused museums, exhibitions, and emotion-related programs and projects, the focus of this article is to explore how these concepts work with one another. As such, the authors acknowledge that this is by no means a complete holistic look at all of the work within the field and is primarily from Curator’s archives alone. This selection of articles  demonstrates the importance of wellness-related topics for a variety of museums — including science museums, art museums, and natural history museums — over the last six decades.

In 1959, just a year after the journal was founded, “Can the Health Museum Flourish in America” by Winfield G. Doyle was published. The article asks readers to consider the importance of biological and health-specific museums as “an instrument for the self-education of the public.” To the author’s credit, Doyle discusses a variety of topics to be presented upon within a health museum including mental health, aging, community health and addiction. Even with a very medicine-focused sentiment throughout the article, Doyle does consider the impact of these exhibits on visitors after they leave the museum. They write, “One contribution a health museum can make in helping people of all ages adjust to their social setting is a sympathetic treatment of the processes of growth and maturing” (p. 81). He goes on to say that many generations might come to such a museum for information, and also for consolation and understanding.

Institutional Empathy, Social Justice, & Stigma

In the five decades since the publication of “Can the Health Museum Flourish in America,” museums have more fully accepted the role they can play in impacting visitor emotions. The 2019 article titled The Empathetic Museum, while not directly related to health topics, serves as a foundation for the articles presented in this issue (Jennings et al.). According to this article, an Empathetic Museum is “impossible without an inner core of institutional empathy: the intention of the museum to be, and be perceived as deeply connected within its community” (p. 505). The article also states that museums cannot survive in the 21st century while remaining separate from issues of social justice, such as inclusion and access. In Siegel’s 2013 article, “Human +, an Exhibition Reflecting the Voices and Lives of People with Disabilities,” John Hockenberry is quoted as saying, “Some 150 million of us are over the age of 80, while 200 million of us suffer from severe cognitive, emotional, sensory, or physical disabilities” (p. 377). Inevitably, all of us will be impacted by health or wellness concerns and will require some type of accomodation to go about our everyday lives in a world that has been built for the healthy and able-bodied. Health is a social justice issue because it affects everyone and museums have the ability to facilitate and connect groups of people, particularly those who may be marginalized, removed from equitable access to healthcare, or are isolated for health reasons, in a safe and meaningful way.

The normalization of these issues within the museum field can also be seen in the Human+ exhibition, according to Siegel’s article. Exhibit developers at the New York Hall of Science thoughtfully involved people with disabilities during the planning process and also emphasized their lived experiences throughout the exhibit. This exhibit was not about technology, but rather human abilities and activities For this reason, the exhibition purposely avoided heroic and pity story narratives as a means to achieve this goal. The authentic and inclusive way in which the museum went about creating this exhibit also impacted staff. The author notes, “My colleagues and I have been filled with emotion and have gained a deeper understanding of how different abilities can affect people’s lives” (p. 383). When museum professionals more deeply engage with topics of health and wellness and build connections with people that have a lived experience that is different than their own, they are impacted emotionally.

Some museum exhibits take on a health-related topic in order to educate and also reduce stigmas. In 1990, the National AIDS Exhibit Consortium was formed to bring together science museums that saw the importance of tackling the AIDS epidemic within their galleries. The formation and purpose of this Consortium is discussed by Aprison in their 1993 article. Institutions across the United States, like the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago), Museum of Science (Boston) Exploratorium (San Francisco), and the Franklin Institute Science Museum (Philadelphia), joined the effort alongside the American Medical Association and the public health agency now called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Consortium was founded on the premise that “learning about AIDS in a nonthreatening setting may enable museum visitors to adopt behaviors that reduce the risks of transmission of HIV and may foster compassionate, humane attitudes toward persons affected by the disease” (p. 88). Some examples of these efforts to support emotional and human connections included incorporating real people to voice the exhibit narrative, inviting teens characterized as “high-risk” by the authors to help develop programs, and creating a separate area to present potentially sensitive topics to visitors.

Using Health to Connect Staff & Visitors

Empathy-building can occur outside of exhibit spaces and for more than just visitors. Two articles in Curator’s archive, “Curating Care: The Design and Feasibility of a Partnership Between an Art Museum and an Academic Pain Center” (Koebner et al., 2018) and “Museums, Meaning Making, and Memories: The Need for Museum Programs for People with Dementia and Their Caregivers” (Rhoads, 2009) present successful examples that address the impact of health and wellness-related museum programs on staff and program partners. In “Curating Care,” members of the Crocker Art Museum partnered with Art Rx, an academic pain center, in order to create curated tours designed to engage those who lived with chronic pain. Museum staff were able to connect with their own healthcare experiences, including some who stated that they had a deeper empathy for people in their lives with similar illnesses. As one museum staff member stated, “I have family members who are dealing with pain, so I think I have come to value just how important it is for people to have even just a minor opportunity to be distracted from what becomes an all-encompassing, all day long experience” (p. 423). Like Human+, visitors who were part of the program appreciated its ability to normalize visitors’ different needs through its accommodations (e.g., providing movable stools) and also offering an opportunity to socialize, which may not occur as often as a result of chronic pain. As one participant said about the program, “it was just so nice for me to get out and forget about my pain and be a normal person” (p. 423).

Some museums foster empathy and connection through targeted programs for a specific group of people that have been similarly impacted by health. In their 2009 article, Rhoads highlighted programs for people with memory loss. Museums can be conduits for connection and interaction, places that can elicit emotional and personal responses from people with dementia and also their caregivers and museum staff. The article notes that leading these social arts programs encourages staff to work with different audiences and also challenges staff to consider other perspectives when planning programs. Rhoads also outlines the importance of social inclusion and emotional connections rather than solely focusing on learning content; the objectives for these programs are emotional and health-related in nature.

Building Health Connections without Humans

Empathy building can occur outside of programs and exhibits directly addressing human health. The article “Death on Display: Reflections on Taxidermy and Children’s Understanding of Life and Death” explores the potential for animal taxidermy in initiating conversations between adults and children about death in the safe environment. Indeed, the most prominent articles that appear related to building empathy and compassion are related to zoo animals (Young et al., 2018; Fraser, 2009). While there are many articles covering health and wellness, some dating back to the 1950s, many articles we explored failed to address the emotional aspects of health or addressed them only briefly with their main focus being content learning (e.g., Cartmill & Day, 1997; Diamond et al., 2015). For this reason, one question the authors of this Virtual Issue wish for readers to consider is why museums have found it easier to consider building these skills with non-human animals, but harder to do with people?

This point is echoed in Dorfman’s 2018 article, “Elephants and Ivory: Coordinating Natural History Museum Action to Address Wildlife Crime.” This piece makes a compelling case for empathy-building as a meaningful way to spur visitors into action. The author notes that effective programming is both relevant and personal to participants. A lengthy paragraph describing in detail the death of a mortally wounded elephant follows where the disconsolate herd surrounds the animal, trying to wake it and eventually covering it in brush and dirt. The article says the passage is moving because we, as the readers, can identify with the emotions surrounding death like grief and loss. But the author notes a distinct difference: “The empathy one might feel when reading this evocative passage is in stark contrast with the notion of the ‘other’…to some representations of humans” (p. 141). The article goes on to stress that empathy-building is not enough to make meaningful change as there must be action. “The dichotomy between humanity’s love for, and dependence on, nature on one hand and willingness to disregard it completely on the other, is at the crux of the problem…”, remarks Dorfman (p. 141).


Museums have the power to foster empathy in order to combat otherness especially in regards to universal topics like health, wellness, and death. We hope the groundwork laid out in Jennings and colleagues’ “Empathetic Museum” continues to be used as a toolkit to aid museums in supporting their communities, especially in matters of equity and inclusion. Ultimately, health and wellness is a social justice issue that will affect us all at some point in our lives. An inclusive and relevant museum will be a place where learning happens, and also where connections are built, emotions are stirred, and action is spurred.


Aprison, B. (1993). The National AIDS Exhibit Consortium. Curator: The Museum Journal, 36(2), 88-93.

Cartmill, R. S., & Day, L. L. (1997). Prevention of substance abuse: Can museums make a difference?. Curator: The Museum Journal, 40(3), 197-210.

Dorfman, E. J. (2018). Elephants and ivory: coordinating natural history museum action to address wildlife crime. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(1), 133-145.

Doyle, W. G. (1959). Can the Health Museum Flourish in America?. Curator: The Museum Journal, 2(1), 74-83.

Diamond, J., Jee, B., Matuk, C., McQuillan, J., Spiegel, A. N., & Uttal, D. (2015). Museum monsters and victorious viruses: improving public understanding of emerging biomedical research. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(3), 299-311.

Fraser, J. (2009). The anticipated utility of zoos for developing moral concern in children. Curator: The Museum Journal, 52(4), 349-361.

Jennings, G., Cullen, J., Bryant, J., Bryant‐Greenwell, K., Mann, S., Hove, C., & Zepeda, N. (2019). The Empathetic Museum: A New Institutional Identity. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62(4), 505-526.

Koebner, I. J., Fishman, S. M., Paterniti, D., Sommer, D., Ward, D., & Joseph, J. G. (2018). Curating Care: The Design and Feasibility of a Partnership Between an Art Museum and an Academic Pain Center. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(3), 415-429.

Myers Jr, O. E., Saunders, C. D., & Birjulin, A. A. (2004). Emotional dimensions of watching zoo animals: An experience sampling study building on insights from psychology. Curator: The Museum Journal, 47(3), 299-321.

Rhoads, L. (2009). Museums, meaning making, and memories: The need for museum programs for people with dementia and their caregivers. Curator: The Museum Journal, 52(3), 229-240.

Sanders, D., & Hohenstein, J. (2015). “Death on Display:” Reflections on Taxidermy and Children’s Understanding of Life and Death. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(3), 251–262.

Siegel, E. (2013). Human+, an Exhibition Reflecting the Voices and Lives of People with Disabilities. Curator: The Museum Journal, 56(3), 375-384.

Smiraglia, C. (2016). Targeted museum programs for older adults: a research and program review. Curator: The Museum Journal, 59(1), 39-54.

Young, A., Khalil, K. A., & Wharton, J. (2018). Empathy for animals: A review of the existing literature. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(2), 327-343.

Zakaria, N. N. (2020). Barriers to Social Inclusion with the Egyptian Museums; New Approach Towards Disability. Curator: The Museum Journal.

You Love Them, but You Don’t Know Them: Recognizing & Welcoming Lived Experiences

Lauren Cross & Tiffany R. Isselhardt

Lauren Cross is Program Coordinator & Senior Lecturer, Interdisciplinary Art and Design Studies at the University of North Texas. Lauren is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Tiffany R. Isselhardt is Program Developer at Girl Museum, and serves as Development and Marketing Manager for the Kentucky Museum. Tiffany is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Whether museums want it to be or not, their audiences are composed of diverse social categories that must be embraced and represented. In order for museums to become truly democratic institutions, a variety of visitor needs must be met both individually and collectively. These needs include education, entertainment, socialization, and economic empowerment, among others, but are highly dependent on who is visiting the museum. John H. Falk’s 2009 synopsis of colleagues’ research on visitor identity revealed that museum visits are “profoundly personal and strongly tied to each individual’s sense of identity.” This sense of identity must be understood by the museum, both in statistics of who they serve as a whole (i.e., community demographics) but also in recognizing that individual visitors fit within these statistical categories in overlapping ways (i.e., how the individual self-identifies forms a unique set of circumstances that inform their visit). For each visitor, the museum serves as a site of autonomous interchange — a concept approximately forty years old and defined in Duncan F. Cameron’s seminal work (1971), which argued that museums should become both temples and forums.

So far, cultural institutions have done very little to discuss intersectionality, a term that has only recently entered into our professional lexicon. Intersectionality, coined in 1989 by Kimberly Crenshaw, a Black feminist and legal scholar, was created to describe interlocking oppressions of race and gender experienced by Black women and women of color. As a social justice framework, intersectionality is far more familiar in feminist scholarship than museum scholarship, yet is applicable to every field.

As scholars focused on intersectional feminism and its relationship to museums, we stumbled upon a 2016 article by Lisa Gilbert entitled “Loving, Knowing Ignorance: A Problem for the Educational Mission of Museums.” In it, Gilbert uses the feminist stance of “loving, knowing ignorance” in museums to describe the ways that institutions exhibit an arrogant, assumed authority over a subject that fails to recognize the subject’s self-knowledge and agency and that also carries a convoluted notion of love for the subject. Gilbert’s definition of “loving, knowing ignorance” connects with Charles Mills’ (2007) philosophical unpacking of “white ignorance,” where knowing ignorance of the experiences and realities of racially and culturally oppressed communities are links to white supremacy (Mills, 13). In its simplest form, a museum that is “loving” yet “knowingly” ignorant is one that strives to embrace the democratic ideal, but does so without consulting those it seeks to include. Yet, even museums that do achieve inclusivity for those it represents can also fail to conquer their ignorance by not recognizing the intersectionality of ignorance — the diverse, interlocking oppressions existing in the museum’s community. These stretch beyond race and gender to include age, class, sexual orientation, religion, creed, and ability. A museum’s failure to recognize how these categories interlock and affect their communities can result in unloving behaviors and exhibit a willful ignorance towards the people they aim to serve.

Addressing recent movements in diversity, equity, access, inclusion and relevance, Gilbert argues that museums can and should recognize their own lack of “loving” and “knowing ignorance,” especially in exhibitions, and work to correct it if they wish to be truly democratic institutions. But how is a museum to do so? And once recognized, how can knowing ignorance be corrected?

We scoured Curator’s archives for case studies that would help reveal how museums can identify and work to correct their “loving, knowing ignorance.” We found many examples where museums have not only succeeded but, in so doing, have become better at representing the diverse communities in which they work. Some were able to do so while also addressing intersectionality. For us, their successes are a guiding light for our future as a field.

Peopling of London

The first challenge is for museums to identify and recognize their ignorance. Even those with the best intentions – those who are “loving” in their ignorance – can find that their roads lead, so to speak, to a public relations nightmare. To avoid such dubious paths, museums must work from the initial planning stage of an exhibition or program to identify areas in which they are “ignorant” — in other words, areas in which the exhibition team (and perhaps museum team) are unable to speak directly from first-person experience.

The Museum of London’s experiences during their Peopling of London exhibition in the early 1990s provides an example of identifying ignorance as early as possible. In planning the exhibition, the museum looked at its internal and external motivations. The article in Curator was written by David M. Kahn, the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Historical Society at the time, and was based on an interview with a curator of the Peopling of London. Reflecting on the interview, Kahn wrote that the Museum of London’s internal motivations were seemingly good: they wanted to “demonstrate goodwill, to indicate to London’s diverse people that they and their history were important to the museum, and that they were welcome within its walls” (Kahn, 242). Internally, their motivations also centered on wanting to reach, represent, and welcome the 20% of London that identified as non-white, especially during a time of rising racism in Europe, and particularly in Britain. Despite these good intentions, the Museum of London realized that they could not accurately represent, nor fully welcome, these people without also ensuring that the people had a say in how they were represented. The exhibition planning needed to include the communities it sought to represent, not just as respondents or reviewers, but as full actors within the exhibit team. But, as Kahn posed, challenging a museum’s internal ignorance challenges museum and curatorial leadership to ask specific questions: “What do we do when little or no research has been done on the groups we are interested in portraying? And do we address diversity in discrete temporary exhibitions or in permanent installations or both?” (Kahn, 240).

The first decision the Museum of London made was to expand its definition of who was represented. They changed the scope of Peopling of London to go beyond the previous exhibit’s narrative conclusion (which ended in 1945), before postwar immigration changed the demographics of London. This addressed an unconscious barrier — age — that sought to include modern visitors as the people of London. They also recognized, in reviewing the prior permanent installations, that they had not addressed the role immigrants had played in London’s development in prior centuries. To ensure Peopling of London would address these problems, and ensure accuracy, the exhibition team identified a wide array of historians, community members (particularly those who had worked on oral history projects), librarians and archivists with whom they met to gather primary source documents. Meeting mostly one-on-one, the team was able to gather significant material to inform and be displayed in the exhibition. Additionally, the team decided to invite diverse communities — young and old, working and not, rich and poor, and of varying ethnic backgrounds (truly “intersectional” as the largely white museum team sought non-white perspectives) — into the project immediately. Utilizing press releases and the Museum on the Move program (a traveling van which brings museum programs and collections into London’s communities), the exhibition team announced the project, sent previews of their intentions into London neighborhoods with large ethnic populations, and had staff recruit passers-by to talk about their lives as part of informal and formal oral history interviews. By the time the exhibition went into production, the team had gathered 65 formal oral history interviews from non-white participants. Another invitation was extended to 60 photographers who previously worked in London’s ethnic communities and could contribute photographs to the exhibition. The team also commissioned photographers to help fill in the gaps in representation.

Embracing oral histories and inviting comments and contributions was just one part of the exhibit process. In reviewing the exhibition content, the team discovered that the Museum of London had a critical lack of collections reflecting London’s diversity, both past and present. To rectify this, institutional collecting strategies were amended to focus on identifying and collecting the material culture of groups previously overlooked. Yet rather than attempt to do so themselves, the museum reached out to others for help. Notably, they forged relationships with the Black Cultural Archives and London Museum of Jewish Life, empowering the museum to better represent its community through both collecting and loans.

Finally, the exhibit team ensured that all visitors could access the information presented through their interpretive brochure, which was translated into eight languages and stated,

“What many people do not know is that London has always been an immigrant city. This exhibition shows that the cultures, skills, and hard work of settlers from overseas has made a vital contribution to the development of London for centuries. The history of their contribution has rarely been told, and with growing racism in Europe, it is especially important to tell this story now” (Kahn, 243).

This set the stage for the exhibition, informing audiences of what they were about to see and recognizing the museum’s motivations for presenting it. It was, nearly 20 years before the activist museum movement arose, a “museum’s are not neutral” exhibition. Peopling of London took a specific stance as pro-immigrant, both in embracing an “immigrants are Londoners, and Londoners have historically been immigrants” interpretation and by providing exhibition information in formats intended to welcome the majority of Londoners.

This labor-intensive work paid off. Not only was the team able to reveal their intentions, they were able to use those intentions to make a statement. By exposing their compassionate yet willful ignorance, and endorsing solutions that included groups the exhibition team had been ignorant about, the museum was able to truly embrace non-white Londoners as subject and audience. Between the November 1993 exhibition opening and May 1994, the museum’s non-white audience jumped from 4% to 20% – becoming reflective of the 20% of London’s non-white population and furthering the museum as a truly democratic institution for all of London.

Broken Links

In “Interpreting Sacred and Contested Historians: The Broken Links Exhibition,” Professor Roy Ballantyne and colleagues (2012) of the University of Queensland, highlights an exhibition that successfully identified and addressed their knowing ignorance was the State Library of Queensland, which hosted the Broken Links: Stolen Generations in Queensland exhibition from May to September of 2007. As a response to the tenth anniversary of the “Bringing Them Home” report, Broken Links intended to explore the 100-year history and impacts of the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their biological parents. Knowing they would be dealing with highly emotional and controversial subject matter, the State Library adopted“hot interpretation,” a method in which interpretation and visitor experiences are designed to prompt visitors to re-examine their own previously held beliefs and perceptions (Ballantyne, 153). This method dates to the 1980s and has been recognized as a valuable means for interpreting controversial, challenging and emotional subject matter. It encourages museum teams to embrace and actively recognize the emotions aroused in visitors, and to encourage visitors to use these points as areas for self-reflection both during and after the visit. Using hot interpretation, Broken Links actively sought to arouse emotions that would empower visitors to connect and reflect on the exhibition’s content.

The State Library decided to portray all exhibition content from an Aboriginal viewpoint, despite their audience being mostly non-Aboriginal. In so doing, they realized their ignorance in that no member of the team had lived through, or been directly affected by, the forced removal. To tell the story effectively, and infuse it with truthful emotion, the State Library team decided to focus on the personal stories of five Aboriginal Queenslanders who were removed from their parents. Working directly with the individuals, they created audio, video, and photographic records — supplemented by government documents, artifacts, personal letters, and interpretive text — that formed a highly immersive, first-person experience where visitors felt as if they were having one-on-one interactions with the Aboriginal Queenslanders.

Additionally, the team added a response wall to the exhibition, where visitors could write comments or impressions. The State Library staff left all visitor comments on the wall, even those that were offensive, so that the wall became a place of conversations between visitors. Some comments revealed how hot interpretation helped visitors connect with the issues presented:

“Some of the people featured in the exhibition are the same age as me…I had no idea that this practice was occurring at the time”;
“The personal accounts were very moving, reading the letters…brought home the feelings in such a personal way”;
“I have a real experience to put up against what seemed like a fanciful story”;
“The exhibition…made me think about how we (as a population) continue our tendency to ignore the plight of contemporary ‘others’ in our society…” (Ballantyne et al., 158-160).

The comment wall also prompted the revelation of untold aspects about the forced removal, such as a 40-49-year-old female from Brisbane’s comment: “When I was little, we would hide some of the Aboriginal kids so that no one in town could find them. We were ‘poor white trash’ so nobody paid much attention to us. Mum was pretty racist, born in the [19]20s but she thought a child deserved its mother” (Ballantyne et al., 158). This comment is revelatory, not just for the story it adds to the exhibition, but also for the intersectional issues of race and class that it reveals in Australia’s history. Would a rich, white mother have done the same? How did the Aboriginal and poor white classes interact? These are questions raised by a single comment, which open doors to greater exploration of the forced removal period.

While Ballantyne et. al (2012) did not address the proportion of offensive remarks, visitor surveys and reviews demonstrated the exhibition’s success. Broken Links visitors reported that they came away with insights into the personal experiences of those removed and had accepted a new perspective on their shared history. As Ballantyne stated, “Participants’ comments indicated that the exhibition had prompted them to reflect, not only on issues regarding the Stolen Generations, but also current issues affecting Indigenous people and other minority groups” (Ballantyne et al.,159). The exhibition had revealed a major benefit of hot interpretation: by letting visitors engage with the material, even through something as simple as a post-it response, visitors could make their own meanings of what they had seen and be able to feel their own voices were heard. Everyone in the community was invited to have a say about the issue, thereby implying that everyone could contribute to addressing the past and present challenges facing Aboriginals in their communities.

Hot interpretation using intimate, first-person stories told by those who had been forcibly removed was integral to Broken Links’s success. The State Library team embraced the need to let go of curatorial authority and have the story told directly by the people who lived it, in order to forge greater emotional bonds with viewers. As a result of this approach, the State Library confronted its own ignorance while inviting visitors to do the same. Additionally, they took a stance in choosing to display the Stolen Generations period as Aboriginal history — rather than as part of white colonialism — that fostered a greater awareness of Aboriginals as a vital, and still very much present, part of Australian society. The State Library was not neutral, publicly promoting the belief that Aboriginals should be respected and that the legacies of forced removal still needed to be addressed.

Five Best Practices

In reflecting on these examples, we distilled five best practices which museums can implement to become more intersectional, and democratic, institutions.

  1. Rely on, and display, explicit facts. The Peopling of London did so, both in the exhibition and brochure. Another example comes from the Brooklyn Historical Society, whose permanent exhibition in 1994 explicitly stated that “black people have lived in Brooklyn since the seventeenth century” — a fact little known in most of America (Kahn, 247). In relying on, and stating, explicit facts, museums embrace what Kahn calls “myth-shattering weapons that undermine popular notions of otherness, and rootlessness, of people of color.”
  2. Collecting must be comprehensive. In the Peopling of London exhibition, curators realized that the museum had little, if any, collections that reflected the experiences of non-white Londoners, even those who had been in the London area for centuries. The museum tried to rectify this gap not just in the exhibition, but in their collection as a whole, through amendments to their collection strategies as well as forging relationships with ethnic museums throughout London.
  3. Focus on the first-person narratives. This strategy was highly effective for Broken Links, enabling a “deep dive” into a controversial, emotional topic without the potential white-wash of curatorial authority. By the end of the exhibit, visitors talked about “our” history rather than “Aboriginal” history, demonstrating how first-person narratives had turned a historically Aboriginal issue into a Queesnlander issue.
  4. Provide a place for reflection. Another high-impact strategy of the Broken Links exhibition was the response wall. Other museums have seen similar success with such initiatives. The Levine Museum’s 2009 Changing Places exhibition – focused on immigration into Charlotte since the 1970s – had a Talk Back board with explicit prompts, such as, “Coming to Charlotte, what cultural traditions did you keep, what did you lose?” (Hayward, 486-489). Record-your-response videos were played back on a nearby television and posted on the museum’s YouTube channel, allowing visitors to contribute their stories and feel represented in the exhibition. The result was a democratic platform where local residents could reflect on their personal experiences of immigrating to the city, rather than perpetuate cultural stereotypes of people representing each culture .
  5. Embrace Open (or Contextual) Authority. The Peopling of London and Broken Links exhibitions were successful in identifying their ignorance and seeking to address it by proactively seeking out their subjects and inviting them to participate in the exhibition process. Additionally, the museum staff let go of curatorial voice in favor of ensuring accurate, inclusive representation by relying on first-person narratives told through oral histories, interviews, and other contributions. Lori Byrd Phillips identifies this as the “Open Authority” model, which is often utilized in the technology field (Phillips, 220). The analogy is simple, but effective: much like how code improves with more coders reviewing it, cultural interpretation can only become truly intersectional and democratic by increasing the number of direct cultural representatives engaged during the process of interpretation. Whether for a single group or an entire city, interpretation improves through greater public participation in the interpretive process. To achieve this, museum teams must reject “absolute” curatorial authority; instead, they should embrace a mixture of institutional expertise (museum staff, historians, librarians, and archivists) and community expertise (the discussions, experiences, and insights of those represented).For the museum world, Phillips calls this “contextual authority.”

Many of these strategies are ones we’ve heard before, making it interesting that despite forty years of reflection, we still — as a field — have yet to fully use the practices that will further our goals of being democratic institutions. We’ve discussed just two case studies, yet there are many examples that can guide us down that path. They provide us with a continuity of evidence that shows the museum’s potential as a forum in which contextual authority — acting as a system of checks and balances between curator and community — leads to the potential resolution of our “loving, knowing ignorance.” This, in turn, opens the doors to greater room for diverse peoples not only in our galleries and collections, but in our lives — and societies — as well.


Australian Human Rights Commission (1997). Bringing them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Bond, N. (2012). Interpreting Shared and Contested Histories: The Broken Links Exhibition. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55(2), 153-166.

Cameron, D.F. (1971). The Museum, a Temple or a Forum. Curator: The Museum Journal, 14(1), 11-24.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989(1), 139-167.

Falk, J. H. (2009). Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Left Coast Press.

Fischer, D., Anila, S., & Moore, P. (2007). Coming Together to Address Systemic Racism in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 60(1), 23-31.

Gilbert, L. (2016). “Loving, Knowing Ignorance”: A Problem for the Educational Mission of Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 59(2), 125-140.

Hayward, J. (2010). Connecting a Museum with Its Community. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(4), 483-490.

Kahn, D. (1994). Diversity and the Museum of London. Curator: The Museum Journal, 37(4), 240-250.

Merriman, N. (1995). Looking at the People Behind the Objects. Curator: The Museum Journal, 38(1), 6-8.

Mills, C. (2007). White Ignorance. In Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (Eds.), Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. (1-38). SUNY Press.

Phillips, L.B. (2013). The Temple and the Bazaar: Wikipedia as a Platform for Open Authority in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 56(2), 219-235.

Virtual Issue: Sonic

In July 2019, Curator: The Museum Journal published a special issue called Sonic. As part of that issue, we explored our archives and uncovered seven papers where sound experience in museums was a central subject of scholarly study. These papers were made open access from July 1st, 2019 – December 31st, 2019.


Finkel, Kenneth. “History in sound and light.” Curator: The Museum Journal 47, no. 1 (2004): 119-122.

Gold, Peter, “Music under glass: New approaches to the exhibition of sound-producing instruments. Curator: The Museum Journal 14, no. 3 (1971): 159-174.

Kerr, Sara. “Sound of South Texas: A Computer-controlled natural-science exhibit. Curator: The Museum Journal 27, no. 1 (1984): 49-57.

McVey, M. E., L. Fairchild, L. and S. L. L. Gaunt. A microcomputer DBMS for a Sound-Recording Collection. Curator: The Museum Journal 32, no. 2 (1989): 91-103.

Ogden, Jacqueline J., Donald G. Lindburg and Terry L. Maple, “The Effects of Ecologically‐Relevant Sounds on Zoo Visitors” Curator: The Museum Journal 36, no. 2 (1993): 147-156.

Exhibition Reviews

Marsh, Caryl, “In praise of sound at the Royal Ontario Museum, Curator: The Museum Journal 47, no. 1 (2010): 51-56.

Moore, K. “The Motown Sound: The Music & the Story.” Curator: The Museum Journal 47, no. 2 (1995): 275-280.

Music in Museums

James Heaton

James Heaton ( is the president of Tronvig Group, a brand strategy agency for museums based in Brooklyn, New York.

I saw the first major survey of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s work at an exhibition organized by the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C., at the end of 2016. The talk of the exhibition was Woman in E (2016), featuring a succession of live performers rotating through a perpetual strumming of that single note on an electric guitar (Tronvig Group 2018). You could hear this work throughout the museum so it announced itself and stirred the imagination long before you arrived at the site of the performance.

Ragnar Kjartansson. Woman in E, 2016

Figure 1. Ragnar Kjartansson. Woman in E, 2016. Originally performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit. 15 January to 10 April, daily for six to nine hours. © Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

Almost any audio-based work is going to invade other parts of a museum and therefore interfere with other works of art. The hushed default of the museum experience means that the artworks in room A are not presuming to invade the experience of people in room B. It’s a kind of civilized discretion that respects the silence of the other artworks. People who talk loudly in museums are looked down upon; artwork that talks loudly may be seen in the same way. We generally don’t want one work to overstep its natural sphere and infringe on an experience in another gallery.

Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors

Woman in E certainly infringes, but that was not the artwork that captured me. It was instead a slightly quieter piece, The Visitors (2012). This video installation is partly about music and its seductive power, and it also forces the issue of sound in museums. I saw The Visitors again at the Cincinnati Art Museum this past May. There, it was not sonically overshadowed by Woman in E, as it had been at the Hirshhorn. The music from The Visitors served as a kind of siren song pulling you in from other galleries. Intentionally or not, the work steals part of your consciousness from other artists.

Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors, 2012.

Figure 2. Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors, 2012. Nine-channel video. Duration: 64 minutes. Commissioned by the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich. © Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

In both installations, the museum visitor encounters The Visitors by walking into what appears to be the house of a rambling southern estate (although it’s actually a farm in upstate New York). The rooms are populated by an assortment of young musicians and a crowd of hangers-on, who are all singing a song for you. They do this for 64 minutes.

For context, the average time spent in front of a masterwork at the Met was measured in 2001 at roughly 30 seconds (Smith and Smith 2001). It’s possible that this has decreased since 2001 as smartphones have steadily eroded our attention spans. When an artwork is not a destination for a visitor, engagement is more like 3 to 5 seconds. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three and they are gone, on to the next work. That’s normal for most people. I am guilty of this too, of course. You have to choose what to eat at a smorgasbord. That said, I spent 64 minutes with Kjartansson’s The Visitors. Twice.

It is not really fair to compare a painting to a performance piece. But 64 minutes is still a very long time to hold someone’s attention and the particular way in which Kjartansson effectively inserts genre-bending performance art into the traditionally quiet museum environment has a powerful captivating effect. It is striking for its dependence on music and musical performance, for its immersive quality, and for its presumption to pull you from other galleries and take up so much of your precious time.

I was not alone in my lingering. Others stayed as I did, sitting or standing in fascination with this work. Children too.

Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors, 2012

Figure 3. Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors, 2012. Nine-channel video. Duration: 64 minutes. Commissioned by the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich. © Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

The Visitors falls into the art-world category of video art, a stepchild of performance art. With some exceptions, I am usually not a fan of video art. The Visitors proves to be a monumental exception.

I am mesmerized by its grandeur, humor, nonchalance, conceit, virtuosity, balls, performance value and intricateness. I marvel at its capacity to enthrall with such seemingly simple means, its ability to create a sense of tension and suspense with so few ideas, few notes and few words. The words of the song repeat hundreds of times and the exact phrase was never actually clear to me until I saw it on a YouTube clip as a title. My misreading of the lyrics did nothing to diminish my engagement.

Tale of two curators

The Hirshhorn’s installation was spread out, making it impossible to see all nine screens at once, so I was forced to walk around as if I was walking from room to room through the mansion where it was filmed. As I walked in front of each room, that room’s vocal or instrumental contribution to the dirge comes to the forefront and is highlighted so you hear their particular voice and instrument in the chorus of all the others. This has an extraordinarily immersive effect. You are in the house. You are walking around in a live performance. As you walk closer, your head gets in the picture.

At the Cincinnati Art Museum, all nine screens were arranged around one room with seats in the middle so that you could, if you chose, plop yourself down and watch the whole thing from one spot (Tronvig Group 2018). This may have been a concession to the available exhibition space, but it did not force you to engage with the work in the same way. That said, I enjoyed it a great deal because I did not feel as strongly compelled to dart here and there to make sure I was not missing some part of the action. Mind you there is not much “action” except the cannon shot in the middle and a few instrument changes on the part of some of the performers. But there was a strong sense of tension and drama in the setting and I found myself working to figure out the configuration of the house. How were the rooms arranged in relation to one another? Could the musicians see each other? What would happen next? How would it end? What are they saying? What does this all mean? It’s enough to keep me watching and listening in a way that’s somewhat baffling because the means are so minimal. There is no plot, not much of a narrative, and little progress in the song, since it is mostly a repetition of the same phrase.

The tension and engagement were there in both installations, but the sense of being in the house and the sense that you are in the middle of a live performance was greater at the Hirshhorn because of the spread of the work. Having all the rooms accessible from a single vantage point lets you off the hook a bit. This ease of consumption is in line with the tendency of most consumer entertainment. I would argue that it reduced the effectiveness of the work somewhat. It made me less likely to walk up close to each performer to hear what his or her contribution was. It made me less anxious that I might be missing some action happening in another room. It is the scarcity of the action that heightens the desire not to miss anything. Small things are momentous. I don’t want to be over in the back when the cannon goes off or the girl in the bed moves around! The buildup of drama from such minimal means is one of the most impressive aspects of the work.

My engagement was strongly catalyzed by the potent combination of visuals, music and sound design.

Why is music so rare in museums?

Is quiet part of the essential value proposition of museums? Is an art museum, for example, meant to provide a kind of dampening field for the other senses so that sight can have free rein? Museums are indeed a very special kind of public space. Their likeness in the public sphere is rare and I agree that this should be cherished. But it should also be examined.

Most art museums are born from collections. Collections are quiet. We are usually asked to enjoy them in quiet. We are required to be sensitive to the subtleties of the messages and the meaning of the art, often with little assistance. This is a pastime for the patient. And yet the reality of most museums, as noted above, is that people don’t spend nearly as much time with the art as we might hope (Rosenbloom 2014).

The quiet of museums—standing out as it does from so many other types of public space—is certainly one reason so many people like them. It’s a good reason: We are bombarded with noise in so much of our everyday lives that it’s a relief to luxuriate in a public space optimized for quiet contemplation. But silence also causes art museums to lose people who might be otherwise obtainable as an audience. My 14-year-old son, when I force him to accompany me to a museum, solves his occasional inability to connect with the artwork by wearing headphones and adding a personal soundtrack to his experience.

Royal experiment

I was recently given a taste of an experimental teen-focused program at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. The program involved some very thoughtful musical insertions into sections of the museum as a way to bring art alive for teens. It worked pretty well for me, drawing me in to a part of the collection I would certainly have passed by without paying much attention. The music in my case was a love ballad from the same period as some of the works in a gallery with an odd collection of medieval and renaissance hearts (Tronvig Group 2018). The experience was mesmerizing. It activated synapses that would have been dormant in the quiet company of the artworks. I don’t have the sensitivity. Intrigued and held in place, my normal unwillingness to bother was short-circuited by this musical intervention.

Part of this effect can be attributed to the sheer novelty of hearing music in an art museum, but the fact remains that the needle moved for me. It was a stark contrast: In one moment, an utter lack of interest, and in the next moment, I am standing in rapt attention, puzzling over the assorted art hearts on display.

Music works on different parts of the brain, including parts that are unlikely to activate with visual stimuli alone, so there is something to be gained by experiments of this kind. It is, however, an intrusive curatorial addition. It was certainly not conceived by the creators of the heart works.

Fear of failure

It is also important to note that the Royal Museums of Art and History include a Musical Instrument Museum, so the institution has trained musical historians who can help curate such a sonic addition to the gallery. In general, art museums prefer to be quiet not only by tradition but also by discipline. The “music people” of the world are not normally in positions of curatorial authority. This experiment I witnessed (it is not ongoing) was a discipline mashup conceived by the education department, not curatorial. It was not a natural occurrence and it was not allowed to upset the core definition or fundamental power structure of the institution. The temporary admission of musical accompaniment to the institution’s very precious objects did not alter the institution’s focus on collections.

This discipline mashup reflects a fundamental tension surrounding the definition of museums: Are we primarily in the business of collecting and conserving, or are we in the business of engaging, educating and entertaining the public? These different definitions are negotiated and maintained by organizational tradition, values and philosophy, financial allocation and staff organization. Few museums have musicologists on staff and few artists represented in art museums are putting sound or music at the center of their work.

Usually, therefore, a soundtrack to the experience of visual art is an instance of the curator adding an additional set of stimuli and thoughts that influence the viewer’s experience of the work. I know this is something that curators are loath to expose, and the fear of making a mistake in an area outside of one’s academic expertise—the fear of failure—is understandably strong.

But all curators are influencing the viewer’s experience within their realm of expertise—they’re just doing so in a way that usually operates outside of the visitor’s conscious awareness. Professional courtesy keeps curators from overtly telling the viewer what to think and feel. This is out of respect for the work and for the visitor. But neutrality is not a real thing. We can only pretend to be neutral or subtly hide our intent. Every curatorial choice down to the lighting is a dialog with the work. At every step, the curator is contributing his or her ideas. The real question is how much we want to expose the dialog between the curator and the work. When do you choose to speak loudly enough to be consciously noticed by the visitor?

Music is an instance of assertiveness that would expose the curator’s role and do so in a realm that curators may find uncomfortable. So mostly the curators stay back behind the scenes. This leaves artists like Kjartansson to take the stage. More power to him.

Curators and exhibition designers could step forward a bit more. I doubt there is much danger of music becoming the norm in museums, but its capacity to selectively enhance engagement is quite real. It is a standing principle for any organization: If you are not taking risks or doing at least some things that make you feel uncomfortable, you are not living up to your responsibility to lead in a world where there are far too many followers, too many players in the groove of the tried and true. Failure is an option, and a good one if the learning you take away from it makes you better.


Smith, J. K.  & L. F. Smith. 2001. “Spending Time on Art,” Empirical Studies of the Arts 19 (2): 229-236. Accessed October 8, 2018. Retrieved from

Rosenbloom, S. 2014. “The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum,” New York Times, October 9, 2014. Accessed October 8, 2018. Retrieved from

Tronvig Group. 2018. “Ragnar Kjartansson – Woman in E, 2016.” YouTube video, 0:47. August 3, 2018.

Tronvig Group. 2018. “Ragnar Kjartansson – The Visitors, 2012.” YouTube video, 0:35. August 3, 2018.

Tronvig Group. 2018. “Music at Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels.” YouTube video, 0:06. July 31, 2018.

Breaking the (Museum of) Sound Barrier: An interview with John Kannenberg

Katherine Richmond

Katherine Richmond,, is Registrar at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London, EC2Y 5HN


In this age of digital news and social media, our lives have become portable. The Museum of Portable Sound is a reflection on this, being both a sign of the times in its boundary-breaking approach, yet also a catalogue of the way in which sound has been used, experienced and perceived over time since we first were able to record it. This mobile museum was established in November 2015 in London, UK and allows visitors to arrange their experience on a one-to-one basis with the curator, or in small groups at a location and time of their choice. Though portable, the museum has galleries, temporary exhibitions and education programmes. With the museum set to receive its 1,000th visitor any day, I spoke with Director and Chief Curator, John Kannenberg about the development of the museum he has built, how it fosters human connections, and its place within the lexicon of museology and sound art.

Where did the idea start to create a Museum of Portable Sound?

JK: I was an artist working with sounds; I was collecting field recordings of the sounds of museums at the time, but I had been making field recordings of all kinds for over a decade at that point. When I began my PhD course at the University of Arts London, I began thinking it might be a good opportunity to figure out how to make a proper sound museum [inspired by JK’s struggle to find a suitable internship during his MA programme]. I began down an entirely different path, writing up a detailed outline for a physical museum I envisioned being the size of the British Museum. I came to the realisation that this crazy concept of mine really boiled down to that one thing: the museological display of sounds as objects, in an analogous manner to the physical objects in vitrines. I needed to figure out how to display sounds in a way that could convey this idea.

What does a visit consist of?

JK: Potential visitors contact me via the museum’s website arranging a visit. Admission is free. When we meet up, I give the visitor my phone, a map of the museum (which they can keep), and a printed Gallery Guide which contains all the “tombstone” labels for the objects, and all of the things that would usually be displayed on the walls of a proper museum. I show them how to match up the sounds on the phone with the information in the Gallery Guide, and then they’re free to explore the museum however they wish.

There are currently 200 sounds, organised into 23 themed galleries, and it’s about 5 hours of listening material, so the museum is large enough to get lost in. Since I don’t put limits on how long a person can stay, often the visits last several hours.

After they finish listening, we then almost always have a long conversation – about their experience of my museum, their experiences at other museums, sounds they remember that they now realise have been important to them – and it turns into a fantastic opportunity for meaning-making via my collection.

A lot of people have said that once they’ve listened to a couple of objects and start deciding “where to go”. They wander off, get lost, some people have said that they lose the feeling of being in one place and time.

Where does the inspiration come from for your content?

JK: Over the years there’ve been certain types of things I’ve always been drawn to record: bells, traffic light signals, plumbing and heating systems, birds, the sounds of visual art being made, public transit, waterfalls…also anything broken or malfunctioning. I have a gallery of glitches in the museum that includes the sound of a broken MacBook on display in the Apple store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and it’s one of the museum’s most popular sounds. When I first started collecting sounds, I was trying to isolate the sounds of things from the sounds of people – I was trying to get these utopian sounds of things without all these bothersome people noises like talking or coughing or their shoes squeaking on the floor. Now I love getting that stuff. So I’m no longer interested in sounds in and of themselves – I’m interested in sounds at work inside their cultural contexts.

In the sound art world ‘Sound artefact’ has a completely different meaning. Is there a tension created by putting sound in a museum?

JK: Yes, it is very strange that they chose the label ‘artefact’ for this. I find it counterintuitive to call something unwanted an artefact, but this word so often has crossed meanings in the context of museums, archaeology and the sound art world. Sound art theorists had come to frown upon the idea of sound as an object, so when I would talk to them about sound objects they would tell me to forget about it. However, when I would mention it to museum theorists, they thought it was intriguing. The worst response I’ve received about my museum was from a sound artist, but it turned out that he had a general disgust for museums in general because he found their didacticism too oppressive.

What is the importance of the way you facilitate the visits (i.e. in person)?

JK: At first I wasn’t sure how much value my presence added to the experience for the visitors, but it quickly became apparent that for many of them, having me there to talk to about the experience was really helpful. I think that’s partially because the content of the museum seems to stimulate memories and ideas in the visitors, and for the most part they seem eager to talk about them. I think being able to have a dialogue about the act of listening, and to talk about listening with someone who wants to listen to what they have to say, plays a large part in the overall experience. A lot of sound art tends to emphasise solitary acts of listening – the Zen-like field recordist demonstrating some deeply mystical connection to the sounds of the universe, that sort of thing. But this project has really brought home for me the knowledge that everyone who is capable of hearing is listening in their own way, and we all can learn things about listening by just listening to each other. It’s been really eye- and ear-opening.

Do you think there are any limitations in the scope of who can access the museum in its current form, or does the format allow you to be more inclusive?

JK: There is a certain reliance on booking via the internet which could be a potential limitation as the internet is not as universal as people like to think it is. I have also conducted visits with people spontaneously though, on the street or at social gatherings. A lot of the success of the project has been through word of mouth, so there’s a possibility of opening this up more. I fully recognise that some people may be alienated by the potentially elitist barrier of having to meet with a person in order to visit. Sound and music generally have traditionally always had gatekeepers (think of the record store attendant) and a sense of connoisseurship that can foster an attitude of exclusivity. I want to find more ways to open up the museum in the future, but was heartened recently when a visitor with experience in advocating for people with disabilities fed back that the museum worked well as an IOS-based structure rather than have a bespoke app, as everything visual is described by audio.

In terms of decolonising museums and bringing to light underrepresented narratives, do you think this is a factor that needs to be engaged with in your museum?

JK: I have been thinking about this a lot. I am essentially a white guy with my own viewpoint and although I think a lot about other perspectives, whatever I’m recording is coming via my perspective. I have tried to be as inclusive as I can within the content, but I have struggled with the decision to include some recordings that share an insight into other cultures, as I feel it would be preferable to have other contributors who can deal with this in a more authentic way.

What does the future hold for the Museum of Portable Sound?

JK: Currently I’m speaking with some other artists in different countries about trying to open up local franchises of the Museum of Portable Sound, like the Guggenheim and the Louvre. That would then open up the possibility of touring my objects to other cities, and bring the collections that would be created by the other artists to my own branch of the museum. I’ve also been learning about more and more portable museums around the world, so I’ve been working on starting an International Association of Portable Museums, which would hopefully spawn a conference and a network of other like-minded institutions. We’ve also got a publishing branch, Museum of Portable Sound Press, and so far I’ve released the MOPS Gallery Guide through it, but I would love to be able to publish other people’s work that relates to the museum’s concept. I’d love to put together a collection of writing about sounds as objects of human culture.

If you could acquire one item into the collection right now, be it a physical thing or a sound exhibit, what would it be and why?

JK: We do have a Physical Objects Collection, and the one thing I want more than anything else for it right now is a Nagra IV-S reel-to-reel tape recorder, because it was the first tape recorder that made field recording possible on a large scale. It’s the classic model that was used to gather sounds by researchers in the World Soundscape Project, and the golden age of film sound designers like Walter Murch and Ben Burtt. In terms of recordings, an authentic recording of a guy (because it’s almost always a guy) in an art museum, standing in front of either a Jackson Pollock or a Cy Twombly, and saying unironically ‘My kid could do that.’

To find out more or to visit the Museum of Portable Sound: