Ready or nah (pocket size)
A few weeks ago, I hosted a workshop for museum employees who wanted to attract a ‘more diverse’ group of visitors. Like many who are actively pushing for the decolonization of knowledge institutes, I urged them to upgrade their goals from diversity to inclusivity. This is a pocket size piece so, in short: inclusivity demands an understanding of intersectionality while diversity often focuses on ‘different looks’ for one identity. One of the participants said they want their audience to be a proper reflection of the city’s population. I suggested to focus on the largest group of Black and non-Black People of Colour in that part of town where the museum is located. They mentioned a large population from one specific country but to anonymize their response, I’ll keep it vague and say that they talked about a community of Brown, predominantly Muslim people. “I think if we give them a tour that somehow mixes our exhibitions with their interests, they’d really enjoy it,” someone said. I asked them to look around the room. “I strongly doubt that this all-white room can speak for this specific community but,” I promised, “I’ll play along… Let’s say we have this new tour. If they show up now with 200 people… would you be ready for them?” The participants assured me that they were. I asked them:
– Let’s say after the tour they want to eat something at your museum restaurant. Is the food halal? Food-food, not just cheese sandwiches or pie.
– If they want to buy a souvenir at the museum shop, will they find something that matches any of their interests? Would they feel represented by the authors and artists whose work is on sale in your store?
– If they check your social media accounts, will they be appreciated or at least seen by something other than the promotion of this one, customized tour? For example: Did you ever use your Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram to say Ramadan Mubarak or wish them a good time during one of the national holidays of their country of origin?
– Last but certainly not least: Which languages can people choose from when they’re interested in participating in a guided tour and/or using your audio tours?*
So what is this readiness they speak of?
Short story even shorter: not all changes take weeks or months.
Dear museums, I understand that you won’t find new board members before the end of next week. I can imagine that you need some time to update your mailinglists so those brandnew “We’re hiring”-texts for all those jobs you’re creating will reach far beyond your comfort zones and, yes, I know that it takes time to build an elevator. I still urge institutes to ask themselves what I asked at Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum when I remixed Nina Simone’s statement about it being an artist’s duty to reflect the times. I also still stand behind my deep-voiced “No!” in response to these questions.
However, some steps, like the ones posted above, can be taken today.
* Please don’t @ me with these tired reflexes of how it’s impossible to include “every single language spoken in the world”. Do I believe all Western-European museums should have audio tours in Papiamentu? No. Do I think the Africa Museum in Tervuren should offer audio tours in Lingala and Swahili? Do I believe that a museum located in a neighbourhood with large Black and/or NBPOC communities should offer tours in at least two of the non-colonial languages spoken by the biggest groups in these communities. Yes and yes. Not because I think that people who speak these non-colonial languages don’t, for example, also speak Dutch or English but because a lot of French, Spanish and German speaking people also understand English yet… most museums offer German and French audio tours.