How are museums changing from institutions of the elite to places that ‘promote humanity?’
Before Sarah Sims, the director of K-12 education programs at the Missouri History Museum, began her current job, she used to work in education. She remembers vividly a trip when she took her students to a local museum in which one student came up to her during the visit and told her how special the trip was. When she asked why, the student said “this is a mansion and this is the only time I get to come here.”
“That broke my heart because that museum and many museums are free,” Sims said. “It should be for everyone, but there were structures in place so that student felt like that place wasn’t for him.”
Sims said her work at the Missouri History Museum is defined by trying to make sure the objects on display reflect the identities of St. Louis’ community members in order to make the institution feel welcoming to visitors.
This ethos is on display this week as St. Louis plays host to some 5,000 visitors for the American Alliance of Museums’ annual meeting. This year’s meeting is themed “Gateway to Understanding,” and focuses on diversity and inclusion in the museum industry.
This year, the Missouri History Museum received the first-ever Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) award from the American Alliance of Museums. Nicole Ivy, the director of inclusion for the American Alliance of Museums, said that the Missouri History Museum is an exemplar for the community when it comes to inclusion.
“The idea of a museum is a weird animal: there’s a place people go to look at objects other people had, and there’s a choreography around the museum where we have historically stood silently aback and gaped at old things,” Ivy told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “As a form, it is particular and kind of unique. And the history of the American museum is linked to elitism. It starts with the cabinet of curiosity and a real focus on exclusion. We are talking about an institution which has over time changed to become more responsive and more inclusive.”
Sims said that the Missouri History Museum has made efforts to do good work around the areas of diversity and inclusion in several ways.
“We do it through objects and artifacts and stories we collect,” Sims said. “Also through the focus of our exhibits, making sure we’re telling multiple different perspectives and stories that represent every St. Louisan, and also through our programming. We offer nearly 700 public programs per year as well as programs from students and parents. Finally, there’s the training and support we provide to staff that reflects those tenets.”
Ivy said that a key to increasing diversity and inclusion meant “opening up the doors of the museum to people who are really hurting.” She pointed to examples of how the Missouri History Museum’s rapid and long-term response to events in Ferguson (including public programming and collecting initiatives) as well as work done by the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte and museums in Baltimore.
“One thing all three of those museums have in common is that they do listen to communities and share authority,” Ivy said.
Ivy said that politics should not get in the way of what is included in museums exhibits.
“Museums, at base, promote humanity,” Ivy said. “I think oftentimes in our collections we have materials that not everyone on staff personally enters into in the same way, but if our missions are at base humanistic ones, there should be space for thinking about culture, art, safety and humanity.”
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