Originally published at: mw19.mwconf.org/paper/inclusivity-practices-the-real-role-of-technology-in-art-museums

Abstract

“What institutions hang on their walls or put on their pedestals is a clear articulation of who they imagine their audience to be.” (d’Souza 2018). American art institutions have long centered on whiteness or catered to white audiences and have not made significant inroads in shifting that narrative. Due to a matrix of colonial narrative practices, disingenuous policies, and an ineffective response to a rapidly shifting demographic, museums remain out of touch and disconnected in the United States. There is a growing awareness of a lack of diversity among both museum stakeholders and audiences, and technology has been touted as a savior for institutions. Yet, technology is ineffective within the current context. Only by employing the power of diverse narratives can art museums then utilize technology to play a formative role in generating new audiences through digital engagement. The paper also attempts to counter the usual challenge in scholarly research—its inability to provide practical, solution-based policies by moving beyond problematizing. The talk will conclude with a look into Curated x Kai as a successful case study. Curated x Kai is an organization that used VR to create representative and inclusive field trips for students. The platform reworks the purpose and definition of a museum and what that “space” means in the contemporary sense. The platform utilizes technology to provide inclusive opportunities and increased accessibility in cultural institutions for students and young adults. The solution for genuine inclusion is simple—it relies on the basic idea of “nothing about us, without us.” Cultural theorist Stuart Hall expanded the scope of cultural studies to also include race and gender, which are critical in the context of a traditional museum space. Cultural institutions need to first look at the structural barriers that exist and are currently preventing them from internally diversifying, before implementing technology as a solution.

Are Museums Even Relevant Anymore?

Museums and cultural organizations are still not engaging new audiences—and their inability to meet this challenge is exacerbating an already percolating problem of institutional relevancy. Museums have become out of touch and unconnected to wider society in the United States. In a rapidly changing country, a lack of diversity on the staff responsible for developing curatorial and outreach programs inevitably has had an effect on a museum’s ability in understanding the interests and needs of its public. Staff of cultural institutions continue to be disproportionately white compared to the racial and ethnic makeup of the country’s population, despite a range of inclusivity and diversity initiatives. Audiences reflect the sector’s stakeholders. An additional layer to contend with in an already complex situation is changing visitor demands of their cultural institutions.

Technology has been touted as a savior for institutions’ relevancy issues, but it is ineffective within the context of unequal institutional representation. Museums have failed to fully grasp the importance of meaningful minority representation in their staffing. Discussions of audience engagement for place-based museums should be grounded in an analysis of the demographic make-up of stakeholders and consequential inclusion and exclusion of audience narratives.

This paper argues that only by employing the power of diverse narratives can museums then utilize technology to play a formative role in producing new audiences through digital modes of engagement. If the real goal of museums is not only to improve their engagement with different sectors of people, technology is a tool to achieve this objective, but it’s not the silver bullet. Meaningful solutions require more than increased digital engagement through posting on a social media platform or launching a new donor-backed app around a particular collection to just check off token diversity boxes on government funding applications.

A continuing challenge for scholarly research relates to its integration into solution-based policy. This paper also encompasses a contemporary case study of an example of a best-practice approach, Curated x Kai, a platform that promotes accessibility by leveraging virtual reality to deliver culturally relevant learning opportunities. The example showcases the implementation of technology as a vital tool to support proactive access efforts in the future.

Instead of taking a top-down approach to influence the overwhelmingly white makeup of museum leadership to adopt inclusive practices to better serve diverse audiences, Curated x Kai takes a bottom-up approach to influence the next generation of museum professionals and gatekeepers.

Why Is Everyone So White in the Museum World?

The museum world operates in a silo. American museums—their boards, their staffs, the people who visit them—are far whiter than the American population as a whole. In 2015, the Mellon Foundation and the American Association of Art Museum Directors published the first-ever study of diversity in American art museums. It found people of colour represent 28% of staff at museums around the country, but most of them work as janitors and security guards (Lott, 2018). In recent years, awareness of lack of diversity among both museum stakeholders and audiences has grown.

A headline published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, an online satirical platform, asking “how can we make our funded program more diverse without hiring more faculty and students of colour,” embodies the issue with diversity initiatives across the board. Institutions simply do not know what to do. Museums are undergoing an existential crisis. Stakeholders and staff at cultural institutions continue to be disproportionately white compared to the racial and ethnic makeup of the country’s population.

The U.S. population is shifting rapidly, and within four decades, the group that has historically constituted the core audience for museums—non-Hispanic whites—will be a minority of the population (Farrell and Medvedeva, 2010). This analysis paints a troubling picture of the “probable future,” a future in which museum audiences are radically less diverse than the American public, and museums serve an ever-shrinking fragment of society. The McSweeney article epitomizes the disconnect between lofty goals and tangible solutions is the main motivation for this paper.

Role of Technology

Technology has been touted as a savior for institutions’ relevancy issues, but it is ineffective within the context of unequal institutional representation. Museums have failed to fully grasp the importance of meaningful minority representation in their staffing. Discussions of audience engagement for place-based museums should be grounded in an analysis of the demographic make-up of stakeholders and consequential inclusion and exclusion.  

In reality, it is only by employing the power of diverse narratives can museums then utilize technology to play a formative role in producing multi-generational, multi-race, and multi-class spaces.

A continuing challenge for scholarly research relates to its integration into solution-based policy. This paper discusses a contemporary case study, Curated by Kai, as an example of a best-practice approaches, with the aim of illustrating an example of more meaningful diversity engagement in museums in the future.

Time to Face Reality—Change in Visitor Expectation

Museums now need to offer more inclusive opportunities for engagement. This is due to the substantial shift in the role of museums toward becoming more visitor-orientated. As opposed to fixating merely on collecting, documenting, preserving and research; museums are pivoting from being “product led to audience centered.” (Graham, 2005).

Yet, museums continue to serve only their dwindling, high-propensity visitors while failing to engage more diverse audiences at representative rates. American art institutions have long catered to white audiences and have not made significant inroads in shifting that narrative. Museum inclusion specialist Aruna D’Souza states in her recent book, Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts, “what institutions hang on their walls or put on their pedestals is a clear articulation of who they imagine their audience to be.” The lack of institutional diversity directly translates into a lack of diversity in museum audiences.

Technology has been touted as the fundamental tool in reaching out to a new audience of non-traditional visitors and fixing institutional relevancy, yet this fixation on only technology misses the mark.

Technology alone cannot adequately address power structures, appropriation, and exclusion in the museum space. Effective audience building relies not only on utilizing digital platforms but rather on creating inclusive narratives. Technology is an effective tool to be used by marketing, education, curatorial, and visitor services to offer varied experiences; it is not the solution.

In order to effectively and successfully implement technology for audience development as part of an overarching successful museum management strategy, there must be a refocus on the museums’ raison d’etre—to increase social benefits (Porter, 2006). Before developing a strategy towards realizing the values of diversity, inclusion and equity, it is important to understand who the museum’s audience is, and what is that audience’s relationship to the museum. By contextualizing the relationship between the institution and the audience, we can then begin to understand where the museum has failed to connect and why. This is only possible once more diverse gatekeepers are in meaningful positions of power and are able to have an impact on programming and other outreach initiatives. Technology can then help invest in and diversify museums and cultural spaces as the subsequent next step.

As museums work to diversify audiences in an inclusive way, cultivating alignment around equity, diversity, and inclusion as values to be pursued throughout the organization is fundamental to meaningful engagement and maintaining relevancy as cultural spaces.

“THEY WANT THE ART, NOT THE PEOPLE”—History of Museums

Foucault’s examination of the forms of social control through institutions and the relationship between power and knowledge are fundamental to understanding museums. Museums represent an encapsulating power structure. On the subject of truth and power, Foucault states, “truth is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statements” and links the system to “a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces, and which extend it.” (Foucault, 1967). The flow of truth and who controls the narrative of human experience are epitomized in the institution of museums. Foucault’s account of the relations between knowledge and power and their overall influence in the processes of governing truth has been fundamental in the development of critical museum studies.

In 1683, a private collection of natural history curiosities was donated to the University of Oxford, where the collection was opened to the public. The Ashmolean Museum became the first permanent public exhibition housed by an establishment. The Ashmolean was founded with the mission statement to exhibit “knowledge of humanity across cultures and across times is important to society” (Ashmolean, n.d). The collection first housed an exhibited array of “curiosities” and over the past few centuries, there have been constant additions to the original assembly. The collection now houses thousands of ceramics, paintings, sculptures, textiles, coins and more, collected and stolen from around the world (Cohen, 2018). It is crucial to note that The Ashmolean was formed around a private donated collection, exhibited on a private platform.

The modern democratic and knowledge-distribution nature of museums is a new phenomenon. Historically, knowledge dissemination was curated for a singular type of audience, and the tradition has continued. The value the museum originally placed on “curiosities” intrinsically builds a very specific context of power and established the tradition of an elite few collection objects from afar for safekeeping. The certain “perspective” of the individuals who are positions of power is a tangible manifestation of cultural capital.

Bourdieu argues that this cultural knowledge accumulation is used to reinforce class differences, as different groups of people have access to different sources and forms of knowledge, depending on variables such as race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexuality (Bourdieu, 1986). Cultural capital empowers members of particular groups that have the resource in socially approved abundance to operate the cultural apparatus of a society and therefore the power system, to their mutual and individual benefit (Jakubowicz, 2011). Cultural capital includes social knowledge and the instruments to sustain and disseminate that knowledge. Museums have “the power to make things seen . . . and to make things believed, to produce and impose the legitimate.” (Bourdieu, 1986).

Few perspectives have invigorated the development of critical museum studies as much as Jamaican-British cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Hall expanded the scope of cultural studies to include race, ethnicity, and gender, without losing the value of economic struggle in the overall structure. The intersectionality of identity is critical in understanding power dynamics in the context of a traditional museum space. Hall defined identity as “the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”(Hall, 1994).

These variables were included in the study of how identity markers are used to operate within a framework of institutional power and who is allowed to lead the collective narrative and who is represented in that space:

Representations sometimes call our very identities into question. We struggle over them because they matter—and these are contests from which serious consequences can flow. They define what is ‘normal’, who belongs—and therefore, who is excluded. (Hall, 1997).

Museums, galleries, and other cultural centers epitomize the question of ownership—of who exactly is welcome in certain public spheres. Bourdieu’s foundational argument is that we perceive territorial boundaries as symbolic ones. The Museum-visitor relationship is an overlap of “symbolic environments, (‘fields’) together with people’s dispositions towards them, shaped by their conditions of existence (‘habitus’), and the symbolic and economic goods this enables them to accrue (types of ‘capital’).” (Dicks, 2016). Art museums epitomize the links between cultural capital and place, yet the institutions still maintain parameters of distance between the public and the space.

Evolution of Museum Responses to Inclusivity

Active efforts are needed to “decolonize” museums and the fraught relationships embedded in the space surrounding issues such as, what is displayed, how objects are collected, and how institutions engage their own staff and the broader community they are mandated to serve. Museums lack of meaningful inclusive representation continues to reinforce contemporary divisions in society; as visitors demand change, museums’ struggle with relevancy will continue.

In 1992, the American Association of Museums’ Task Force on Museum Education wrote a book with concrete recommendations for museums to expand their role as educational institutions, especially with regard to culturally diverse audiences.

The Task Force recommended the same solution that was found in an earlier 1984 AAM report from the Commission on Museums for a New Century—complete upheaval of institutional structures.

In a review of the 1992 book, Stephen Mark Dobbs wrote, museums need to “only do a single thing. It’s a prescription for action known at least since 1,600 BC, courtesy of the Minoan actors at the Palace of Knossos: take the bull by the horns.” Dobbs acknowledges that “the challenge is risky.”

because if it were fully realized, it/they would “upset the applecart of traditional and to a degree stereotypic concepts of art museums as sacred groves of Western civilization and academe, operating primarily for the preservation and exhibition of treasures collected by the wealthy and admired by the cognoscenti.”

Are You Not Entertained?

A 2017 Culture Track study suggests that the public’s understanding of what defines “culture” is changing rapidly. They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that cultural consumers want to be entertained more than they want to be edified. The number-one reason for attending a cultural activity, cited by 81 percent of respondents? Having fun. (“Interest in the content” and “experiencing new things” came in second and third.) (Culture Track, 2017). The new visitor demands reflect a fundamental change also reflected in the museum world. In the age of social media, exhibitions that photograph well and are fun also perform well in terms of audience engagement.

IMPACTS Research and Development attributes negative substitution on the fact that “the market is growing more diverse, while perceptions of cultural organizations as being places for a certain kind of person have remained largely static” (IMPACTS, 2018). The inability to not keep pace with radically changing demographic lines, and difference, are due to a myriad of issues. This incapacity is due to complex mix of socioeconomics, history and continued unintentional insensitivity. In the same Culture Track article cited above, the barriers to certain cultural experiences were also explored:

Irrelevance is often the culprit: the primary barrier to participation is feeling that a cultural activity is ‘not for someone like me’ (34%), followed by lack of awareness (20%). These rank even higher than basic barriers such as inconvenience, not being able to find anyone to go with, and cost.

The greatest barrier to cultural participation is a lack of relevance, well above many of the logistical concerns that museums focus on.

The data is staggering; four in 10 people in the U.S. don’t feel welcome in an art museum (IMPACTS, 2018). The data from the report also indicated that history museums are perceived to be slightly more welcoming to lower income audiences than are art museums. Museums often cite admission prices as a barrier to entry for middle- and working-class families (Cancel, 2017), but the evidence illustrates that admission price is not a primary barrier for a cultural organization’s low visitation (IMPACTS, 2018). Free admission will not cure museums’ engagement and attendance issues. The sector’s proffering of admission prices being an entry barrier is simply untrue. Touting superficial solutions to the issue such as dedicated free admissions day or free admission to locals does not fix the underlying issue, as evidenced by unchanging visitor numbers. The underlying reason for low visitation numbers is attitude affinities.

Museums and other cultural institutions continue to serve a self-selected, affluent, and mostly white population. In an America that is no longer 90% white, there is a looming problem in the fact that 91% of museums’ core visitors are still non-Hispanic white (Farrell,  2010). Princeton University researcher and sociologist Paul DiMaggio states that attitude affinities quantify how comfortable people feel at an organization. His research focuses on central concepts in the study of culture between framing and the relationality of meaning. Contextual frameworks are significant in developing affinities between the sociological perspective on culture and the linguistic contexts that surround social institutions or policy domains. How museums talk about “culture” and who they invite to that conversation directly impact who is welcome in the institutional space. Low visitor rates indicate the institution, and its material, do not resonate with the broader audience they’re trying to attract.

The problem is twofold; the lack of representation and the inability to change to adhere to visitors’ new demands of cultural spaces. People are both producers and consumers of culture, making culture is a “critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are established.” (Procter, 2004). This is highlighted by visitors’ growing demands for new forms of engagement.

In describing their ideal cultural activity, those surveyed for the IMPACT study most commonly cited the words “social” (34% of respondents), “interactive” (32%), “lively” (31%), and “hands-on” (30%). Only 20% described their dream cultural experience as “reflective” (Culture Track, 2017). Interactive experiences are part of the rise in the new demand for more immersive multi-sensory experiences that appeal to new and younger markets.

Technology is a tying factor—people who “attend a cultural organization are all looking things up online and using the web and social media, regardless of age, meaning cultural organizations digital presence is crucial.” (IMPACT).

The issues facing museums’ relevancy are compounded. Visitors are demanding more topical representation in museums, and additionally, people do not engage with the space as they did in the past. Technology has redefined the meaning of the museum experience, and in the museums’ ongoing attempt to engage younger people and a wider audience in hopes of maintaining visitors for years to come, museums have to embrace new approaches—both in tools and diverse content creation.

Role of Technology in New Museum Landscape

Institutions have yet to address the fundamental issue facing their survival—cultivating more diverse audiences by reworking knowledge dissemination management. Without an inclusive narrative both the technology and the institute remain on the path to continued irrelevancy. There are several questions that emerge from this—the first being “Inclusivity for what end?” and secondly, “How can digital platforms be used by a diverse staff to entice a broader non-traditional audience?”

A 2015 report published by the Centre for the Future of Museums identified six trends that will shape the ways institutions do business, engage viewers, handle their collections and renovate their buildings in the years and decades to come. These key trends were open culture and data movements; consumers’ heightened awareness of ethics issues; personalization; climate change and rising sea levels; wearable technology; and the slow culture movement (Merritt, 2015).

The section on ethics makes no mention of diversity. It is a continued failure of museum staff to sufficiently reflect the changes in societal demographics that has led them to the current struggle with sector relevancy. Museums continue to miss the mark. Not recognizing the importance of the question of how to increase diversity among museum staff and audience is a profoundly telling oversight.

The focus has always centered around the technological tool, rather than the individuals deciding and disseminating the information. Museums use technology as a platform for their outreach. The point of their communication platforms is to fill knowledge gaps, build rapport, and eventually shape visitor behaviors. In the same way that digital platforms are increasingly being used to enhance and enliven physical exhibitions, technology also has the potential to be utilized as a key collaborative tool in delivering successful experiences.

Consideration

It should not be assumed that museums have a fixed mode of operating. “Museums have always had to modify how they worked, and what they did, according to the context, the plays of power, and the social, economic, and political imperatives that surrounded them.” (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992).  Technology can help reduce the distance between the museum and the audience, creating new ways of understanding, appreciation and ongoing relevance for exhibitions.

There are several examples of individuals, organizations, and institutions that are developing more meaningful inclusive direction beyond the idea of museums as cabinets of curiosity. Attention is being paid to the integration of methodologies and strategies designed to enhance visitor engagement and finding new ways to maintain relevance, profile, and income by focusing both on content and digital engagement.

Case Study: Curated x Kai

The case study used in this paper is Curated x Kai, an organization using virtual reality to create representative and inclusive museum field trips for students. The founder, Kai Frazier, created the company after being troubled by the consistent and blatant racism she experienced as she served as a the highest ranking person of color in her museum’s marketing department.

During a typical day in her museum role, Kai was often aggressively warned by staff unfamiliar with her to find a more appropriate seat at museum events as her seat was “reserved” for the senior marketing strategist, unaware it was in fact Kai they were referencing. It was a common occurrence at expensive donor events that Kai would be handed empty champagne glasses as attendees assumed she was the help for the event. The unwelcoming microaggressions made it consistently uncomfortable and often unsafe to serve in her role.  

Frequently, Kai resorted to sending memos to trusted white male colleagues to present at large meetings as she grew accustomed to the all-white senior staff disregarding her viewpoints on increasing inclusive content. Kai quickly realized, the more she advocated on behalf of her data-driven insights, the more she could expect disciplinary actions which made it almost impossible to receive promotions and salary increases. When it came time to become a director, she was offered “assistant director,” as her white supervisor told her making her a director would “offset the current balance of the museum leadership they aimed to keep.”

Due to the constant discrimination she experienced, Kai created her platform to rework the purpose and definition of a museum and what that “space” means in the contemporary sense. The platform utilizes technology to provide inclusive opportunities and increased accessibility in cultural institutions for students and young adults.

According to the Pew Research Center, students of color are now the majority in public schools. However, if a student is able to visit a museum on a school field trip, the paintings on the wall rarely reflect the demographic makeup of the communities in which they live. The larger obstacle, according to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators, revealed that more than half of schools eliminated planned field trips. The National Education Association states students who take regular field trips have 63% higher college graduation rates, and a college degree is a necessary qualification for most professional staff at museums.

Curated x Kai uses technology to curate a world of virtual field trips highlighting inclusive content from museums throughout the world. Kai’s use of virtual reality allows students to experience exhibitions representative of their diverse worlds, directly from their classrooms. By removing physical barriers from museums, paired with strategic outreach to marginalized communities, students are exposed to new museum careers and opportunities at a young age “showing students that their diverse experiences are essential in cultural spaces.” (Harrington, 2018).

As museums continue to use virtual reality for gimmicky in-house extensions of their white-washed content, Curated x Kai’s bottom-up approach is using technology to share diverse museum content beyond museum walls and deliberately infusing it into schools, many of which have lost funding to visit museums. This exposure allows diverse students to experience opportunities and career paths within museums in an attempt to close the gap between the communities in which museums aim to serve and a lack of diverse visitors and professional staff.

In the short span of one year, Kai has sent students on almost 3,000 virtual reality field trips to a range of diverse locations and museums. Visitors from different countries, age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities explore museums through virtual reality without being subjected to the unwelcoming microaggressions and racism Kai experienced while working in the museum space.

Kai continues to make national headlines, with her platform receiving invitations ranging from the U.S. Department of Education to the tech giants of Silicon Valley. The one invitation she hasn’t received—an invitation from any museum to create a virtual reality experience inside their institution, further perpetuating the core issues that caused her to start her company in the first place.

Conclusion

“There is no cultureless or neutral perspective, no more than a photograph or painting could be without perspective. Everything is cultured, including the layout of designed experiences, such as museums, and the practices associated with teaching science in school.” (Bell, 2009). American educator and sociologist Paul DiMaggio argues that the idea of social coherence versus fragmentation needs additional attention in cultural studies. Many sociologists have come to reject the latent-variable view of culture as coherent, integrated, and ambiguous in favour of representations of culture as a “toolkit” (Swidler, 1986), or “repertoire” (Tilly, 1992). It is “a collection of stuff that is heterogeneous in content and function.” (DiMaggio, 1997).

The presumption that culture is “organized around national societies or cohesive subnational groupings, is highly thematized, and is manifested in similar ways across many domains” is a continued mistake in the field of cultural studies (DiMaggio, 1997). The discordance in cultural narratives expands in the realm of cultural institutions. The research describes the “capacity of individuals to participate in multiple cultural traditions, even when those traditions contain inconsistent elements.” (DiMaggio, 1997). People have the capacity to maintain distinctive interest frames, leading to distinctive action frames.

Museums need to evolve to be perceived as more welcoming to different types of people than “traditional” visitors. Negative substitution suggests that if museums keep on attracting people that look and behave like their current audiences, visitor numbers will continue to decline over time (Dilenschneider, n.d). While goals of most museums rest on some idea of visitor engagement—there must be an audience. The conversation in the museum sector should expand and invite a genuine inspection of contemporary purpose, as well as its sincerity in broadening the idea of audience.

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