Chapter 9. Talking Inclusion with the 2018 MCN Scholars
- Jessica BrodeFrank
The future of museums is inclusion and diversity. These two buzzwords are in almost every museum’s mission, values, or brand statement; but how are we outwardly reflecting it in outdated exhibits and Eurocentric narratives? The digital space is an opportunity to be more intersectional. As stated in the Digital Humanities Quarterly, the digital space has become the forefront for interactions with the humanities:
The humanities have become digital by making the objects of study available in digital form, by introducing digital analytical tools, and by establishing digital means of communication for collaborating during the research process, for discussing and disseminating research results and for interacting with society at large.1
The MCN Scholars Program2 represents 15 emerging museum professionals from various cultural heritage sectors and the work they’re doing to innovate the museum world, specifically in the digital realm. This year we saw Twitter mascots, museum memes, MOOCs, and online exclusive museums. Overarching across many of the scholars’ presentations was the role technology can play in bringing diversity to our institutional messaging. Of the 14 scholars who spoke, three in particular made specific case studies of this kind of inclusive narrative online and I will cover that here: Shaz Hussain of the Science Museum London, Isabel Brador of the Wolfsonian-FIU, and Ravon Ruffin of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
Shaz Hussain of the Science Museum London also works as a pioneering member of the group Museum Detox. Her presentation at the 2018 MCN Conference focused on the work done as a part of Museum Detox, specifically the White Privilege Clinic. As stated on their own website, Museum Detox:
is a network of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds who creatively use radical approaches to dismantle unjust infrastructures in our national cultural institutions. We start by challenging our own conscious biases, prejudices and stereotypes that we hold on ourselves and others. Through open and honest conversations, and surveys with our growing membership base, we share our views and concerns with the sector we work in.3
This sector, the museum sector, has a problem with diversity. According to Mariet Westermann, executive vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, “the situation was worse than in almost any sector I’ve seen.”4
Westermann was referencing the issue of representation within museum staffs. A national study conducted in 2015 by the Mellon Foundation found that in art museums only 16 percent of leadership positions are held by people of color, although 38 percent of Americans identify as non-Caucasian.5
To address such a disproportionate representation within museum staffing, Museum Detox brought forward the White Privilege Clinic. This was presented at the Museums Association Conference in Manchester, UK. It challenged conference-goers to take a test to check their white privilege with Museum Detox staff acting as “doctors” who went over their “patients’” test results and gave “prescriptions” to address these biases. As Hussain stated after the experiment:
I invited you to take the test because I wanted you to put yourself in the shoes of a person of colour. To see the other side of the same coin. I look you dead in the eyes and tell you my lived experience of racism. I ask you what you are going to do, with whatever amount of privilege you have, to help in this fight. Your white privilege is such an empowering thing. I believe that you can make change.6
The White Privilege Clinic won “best product” at the conference, and more than that, inspired Twitter discussions where “patients” shared how they would remedy their own white privilege, allowing a safe space to begin these difficult but necessary conversations. We cannot hope to diversify our narratives until we first recognize the biases we present to our public every single day, and this is what the Museum Detox group is advocating for.
One way museums can truly begin to face their white privilege might reside in creating better-researched metadata to uncover stories we never thought to look for within our White Eurocentric narratives. Metadata is the unsexy cousin of digital initiatives. It’s not something donors are lining up to fund but without it how can we expect to do anything else. When a social media specialist asks for what you can post for a specific theme, you need to be able to search your database for terms that will bring up correlating material; without metadata this search is useless. Prominent digital humanists like Lev Manovich have long argued that “objects remain effectively invisible without adequate database search functionality.”7 Yet if we don’t have the time and we don’t have funding to do proper metadata tagging how can we get it done?
This was a question that the Wolfsonian-FIU faced. The Metadata Squad was created to do this essential but often-overlooked task, bringing on a team of graduate students who are paid to dig deep into the metadata for objects that either have yet to be verified or have yet to be researched. Isabel Brador spoke on the creation of the Metadata Squad as a reciprocal learning experience; graduate students learning valuable research skills, and the Wolfsonian learning more about their collection.
The information gathered by the Metadata Squad has allowed the Wolfsonian to discover and tell more representative stories. Brador spoke of one example of the ceramicist Edris Eckhardt whose works are housed in the Wolfsonian. One of the members in the Metadata Squad added to the Wolfsonian metadata to include the story of how Edris Eckhardt changed her name from Edith to Edris to sound more androgynous after losing commissions to male counterparts.8
With proper metadata it becomes much easier to find objects that have unique, diverse, and inclusive stories outside the typical narrative. As stated by Kate Holterhoff in the Digital Humanities Quarterly, “I contend that improving database search functionality through heavy editing-metadata is voluminous, polyvocal, and critical… is at present the best means for facilitating digital image archives to contribute increasingly significant socio-political projects.”9 These deep dives done by institutions like the Wolfsonian are great to start internally, but useless if not shared externally with the public. One of the easiest, cheapest, and widest-ranging ways to share this kind of content is through social media.
#trending on Social
Despite the rise in popularity of social media platforms within the everyday person’s daily life “in the museum digital field, a lot of museums don’t invest in social,” says Lanae Spruce, Manager of Social Media (NMAAHC).10 Spruce and Ravon Ruffin lead the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s social media presence, and from day one the museum has noted the need for investment in social. Part of the museum’s mission is to fuse African American history into every day thought and life. Through social media, NMAAHC is able to continually contribute threads to popular conversation.
In March, Spruce and Ruffin started a thread on Twitter with the hashtag #hiddenherstory to honor Women’s History Month. Every day, they shared facts about black women to “celebrate the legacy of women who were often unsung in traditional historical narratives.”11 The hashtag took off, and audiences reveled in the stories the team told with only 140 characters and an image. From Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus prior to Rosa Parks, to Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a formerly enslaved woman who sued for her freedom and became one of the first black women to own land in California, “people don’t know these stories,” Spruce said.12 On social, people thanked NMAAHC for sharing and even asked for more. They saw women who, despite dealing with segregation and gender discrimination, “were empowering during a time when so many people tried to stifle black women.”13
Similarly, #blackmensmiling began trending in 2018, and NMAAHC joined this already-trending hashtag with their museum content. Twitter credits comedian Dennis Banks for starting the hashtag on February 2, 2018 and as it trended for much of that day and the next, NMAAHC joined in the conversation. Shortly after, many celebrities and other institutions joined and threaded with them on Twitter.14
NMAAHC has provided a space where people can go, not only to engage and tell their own stories but to see diverse stories told. This is the power social media holds.
As the MCN Scholars program looks at the future of museum professionals, the MCN Scholars themselves are showing that the future of museums is more diverse and inclusive. As museums begin to confront their own biases, discover their own diverse stories, and share these stories with the world, we will hopefully begin to see museums transitioning to the inclusive spaces we’ve always wished them to be.
- Niels Brugger, “Digital Humanities in the 21st Century: Digital Material as a Driving Force,” Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 10, no. 2 (2016). ↩
- “2018 Scholars,” Conference presentation, Museum Computer Network, Denver, CO, 2018. http://conference.mcn.edu/2018/scholars.cfm (accessed January 18, 2019). ↩
- “Meet Our Team,” Museum Detox, http://museumdetox.com/#team-5 (accessed January 18, 2019). ↩
- Robin Pogrebin, “With New Urgency, Museums Cultivate Creators of Color,” New York Times, August 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/08/arts/design/museums-curators-diversity-employment.html (accessed February 8, 2019). ↩
- Pogrebin, 2018. ↩
- Shaz Hussain.“The White Privilege Clinic | An Open Letter to my white colleagues,” Medium, February 20, 2018, https://medium.com/mcnx-london/the-white-privilege-clinic-an-open-letter-to-my-white-colleagues-d336e0a4206d (accessed February 8, 2019). ↩
- Kate Holterhoff, “From Disclaimer to Critique: Race and the Digital Image Archivist,” Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 11, no. 3 (2017). ↩
- “Edris Eckhardt, Pioneer in Glass Sculpture, 1905-1998,” Cleveland Arts Prize, http://www.clevelandartsprize.org/awardees/Edris_Eckhardt.html (accessed January 25, 2019). ↩
- Holterhoff, 2017. ↩
- Ashley Nguyen, “These Two Women are Building an African American History Museum Online,” The Lily, https://www.thelily.com/these-two-women-are-building-an-african-american-history-museum-online/ (accessed January 16, 2019). ↩
- Nguyen, The Lily. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Vanessa Williams, “#BlackMenSmiling: Why a small gesture caused a big reaction on Twitter,” The Washington Post, February 3, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/02/03/blackmensmiling-why-a-small-gesture-caused-a-big-reaction-twitter/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7f6a2125ca04 (accessed January 17, 2019). ↩
- “2018 Scholars.” Conference Proposal. Museum Computer Network, Denver, CO, 2018. http://conference.mcn.edu/2018/scholars.cfm (accessed January 18, 2019).
- “Edris Eckhardt, Pioneer in Glass Sculpture, 1905-1998.” Cleveland Arts Prize. http://www.clevelandartsprize.org/awardees/Edris_Eckhardt.html (accessed January 25, 2019).
- “Meet Our Team.” Museum Detox. http://museumdetox.com/#team-5 (accessed January 25, 2019).
- Brügger, Niels. “Digital Humanities in the 21st Century: Digital Material as a Driving Force.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 10, no. 2 (2016). http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/10/3/000256/000256.html (accessed January 25, 2019).
- Holteroff, Kate. “From Disclaimer to Critique: Race and the Digital Image Archivist.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11, no. 3 (2017). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/11/3/000324/000324.html.
- Hussain, Shaz. “The White Privilege Clinic | An Open Letter to My White Colleagues.” Medium. February 20, 2018. https://medium.com/mcnx-london/the-white-privilege-clinic-an-open-letter-to-my-white-colleagues-d336e0a4206d (accessed January 25, 2019).
- Nguyen, Ashley. “These Two Women Are Building an African American History Museum.” The Lily. August 1, 2018. https://www.thelily.com/these-two-women-are-building-an-african-american-history-museum-online/ (accessed January 25, 2019).
- Pogrebin, Robin. “With New Urgency, Museums Cultivate Creators of Color.” The New York Times, August 8, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/08/arts/design/museums-curators-diversity-employment.html (accessed January 25, 2019).
- Williams, Vanessa. “#BlackMenSmiling: Why a Small Gesture Caused a Big Reaction on Twitter.” The Washington Post, February 3, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/02/03/blackmensmiling-why-a-small-gesture-caused-a-big-reaction-twitter (accessed January 25, 2019).