In this episode we hear from Sina Bahram, Nina Simon and Cecille Shellman. All three are working to make museums more welcoming, relevant and reflective of their communities. We talk about how cultural institutions can design experiences and programs that are inviting and participatory, how technology can help level the playing field for accessibility, and how staffing decisions can bring new perspectives into organizations.
On View is a production of the Knight Foundation, hosted by Chris Barr and produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. This episode has been mixed and edited by Wilson Sayre.
Cover photo "Doorway to Infinity" by byronv2. (CC BY-NC 2.0)
CHRIS BARR: On a rainy morning a few months ago, I went to the North Carolina Museum of Art with Sina Bahram. Sina is a computer scientist, a researcher and an entrepreneur. And he’s someone who is on the road about 200 days a year, working with museums and other cultural institutions on issues of accessibility and inclusion. And because of this work, he’s been recognized with awards like the Obama Administration’s Champions of Change.
Sina’s also blind.
Sina: I met up with Chris, grabbed his arm and did something called sighted guide. So sighted guide is where you hold on to someone, presumably someone who can see’s elbow, and then through mostly non-verbal communication, they can give you instructions on where to go. So if Chris puts his elbow behind the small of his back that means that I should go single file behind him...
Chris: This was something new for me. Walking through an art museum with someone who has a visual impairment; it really allowed me to experience the galleries in a new way. I’m someone who tends to be a little bit introverted and reflective in these kind of spaces. So when I’m visiting museums, I usually walk from room to room, viewing each exhibition and piece of art, to sort of download it into my brain to be sorted out later. But with Sina, I found myself being far more social. I would describe what I was seeing to him, and then we would launch into these huge discussions on meaning and our thoughts about the world. I was present with the art and experience in a way that was new to me. All of a sudden my inner monologue got really quiet.
It made me wonder if museums have over-prioritized a default mode for being in their space? Do we all have to walk around art museums in quiet contemplation, as if we were in a church? And do people like me - a white, able bodied, highly educated male - represent the default visitor? Or could we make design choices that would enable whole new ways of being in these spaces? Choices that would acknowledge the different lived experiences we all have as humans.
I’m Chris Barr. And in this episode of On View, we’ll hear from Sina, along with Nina Simon and Cecille Shellman. All three are working to make museums more welcoming, relevant and reflective of their communities. We’ll be thinking about how cultural institutions can design experiences and programs that are inviting and participatory, how technology can help level the playing field for accessibility, and how staffing decisions can bring new perspectives into organizations.
And as soon as Sina and I started our walk around the museum, we were confronted with these ideas.
CHRIS BARR: I wanted to walk past the visitors desk because behind the visitors desk is a giant neon sign in a scripted font that says you belong here. And I just think that's a wonderful way to start our conversation and our trip to the museum: this question about who museums are for. Who they should be for. And the challenge of making them for everyone.
Chris: I invited Sina to the museum to talk about this notion of making the museums better for everyone, because he subscribes to a theory of design that is about including more people. As a consultant, he works with museums on projects that not only improve accessibility, but also make the experience better for large groups of the population.
Sina: So accessibility are those things that we do to address specific disabilities. Right. And so a disability is the consequence of an impairment, whether it's cognitive, emotional, aural, olfactory what have you. And so, when we think about disability actually, it's really important to understand that there's two fundamental models, there's many more in critical disability studies, but I'm grossly oversimplifying here. So there's the medical model which treats disability as something that should be fixed and that's fine up to a certain point: you break your arm you go to the doctor, you get a splint or a cast or something like this, and it gets healed up. But here's the thing: What happens when that thing cannot be fixed?
Chris: So in contrast to the medical model of disability, he says that with a social model of disability, we can start to view the environment as disabling, rather than the individual as disabled.
Sina: So the fact that because your arms don't work like mine do and you and you can't open a door, is not your problem. It's the fact that the environment that we live in and society at large did not make that door openable with either a kick button or a push button that would open it automatically or automatically like grocery store doors.
Chris: From this frame of thinking, we can start to ask how we can make our environments and products less disabling. And this is where the disciplines of inclusive and universal design come in to play.
Sina: It's a set of principles that you use at the beginning of a project from inception to production and even afterwards that allow you to think about and consider all of these different types of ways that you're offering, whether it's a piece of technology you're building, whether it's a building that you're building, you consider all of the different ways it can be consumed and used and you try not to hard code these constraints about, “Oh, well I'm gonna assume everyone can see, I'm gonna assume everyone can walk, I'm going to assume everyone can hear.” So, we relax those constraints and as a result we make it better for absolutely everyone.
Nina: This idea that being for everyone leads you to being for no one. I think it's actually, Chris, even more dangerous than that.
Chris: That’s Nina Simon. She’s the CEO of an organization called Of By For All.
Nina Simon: which is a global movement to work with cultural and civic organizations around the world to become more inclusive spaces. Until very recently for the past eight years, I was executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
Chris: Sina and Nina are actually talking about the same thing. The problem is, that it’s really easy to hide behind inclusive language. Sure, it’s easy to say that public institutions are spaces for everyone, but to actually design an experience that appeals to everyone simultaneously is an impossible task. And when I asked Nina about that challenge, she worried that there was something even bigger that lurked behind it.
Nina: I think that we often say we're for everyone, but then de facto become for the people who give us money or the people who look like us. And you know it's a fact that in this country the majority of people who visit art museums are older, whiter and wealthier than the general population. So regardless of if museums say that they're for everyone the data shows that everyone is not necessarily feeling comfortable walking in those doors.
Chris: Nina is someone who thinks a lot about how relevance is built and maintained. In her book, The Art of Relevance, she looks at how mission-driven organizations can matter to more people. And she argues that no organization can simply declare their importance to the community, instead they should think about how they invite people to participate.
Nina: So in the book we use this central metaphor of rooms and doors where we say that you know if the content that you care about, if the experience you care about, lives inside a metaphorical room, then when you're trying to establish relevance what you're trying to do is to open new doors to new people.
Chris: And where one person might like a very formal marble door, another person might prefer a bright pink cardboard door.
Nina: Part of doing this work of establishing relevance is being comfortable and open to the idea that different doors open differently for different people. And there is not utility to privileging one kind of entry point then another.
Chris: And often, creating these new pathways into museum experiences can be seen by some as ancillary to the serious work of museums. But museums have already become comfortable with some alternative entry points to their spaces.
Nina: I think that most museums are very comfortable with the idea that there may be people who come in through the door of the cafe who come to have lunch and then to have museum experience as part of it. And we treat those visitors as legitimate real visitors.
Chris: But in some museums, efforts to create programs for new audiences can be met with skepticism. There can be a feeling that a pop-up or late night event is just a party, rather than a pathway into the museum.
Nina: And I think we have to really get generous and open minded about the many different ways and reasons people might come in, the many different ways and reasons people might find us relevant, and then be willing to really actively open those doors to new people. Because we're very comfortable with the doors we've had for a long time, even if some of them like a café may not actually be so mission tied. We’ve had them for long enough, that we think it’s an okay pathway in.
Chris: So here’s the thing, where one door might signal for some to come in, it might signal to others to keep out. So what do we need to do in order to start opening new doors to our institutions?
Nina: We've found again and again, is that, if you can start by really being specific about saying, here's a community we want to involve - and not just saying young people or African-American people - but really getting clear on saying, “hey we're interested in involving the community of people who are active in African-American churches in this city” or “we’re interested in the community of teenagers who see themselves as creative activists.” When you get specific about a community then you can reach out to those folks and you can talk to them and you can say, “hey you know what says welcome to you.”
Chris Barr: This is work that requires talking to people, building relationships and gaining trust, not simply guessing what they might like. And it starts with understanding and prizes co-creation.
Nina: We actually call what we do community-first design, and I think that the biggest difference from the typical way of working is instead of starting with content or a collection or a program and then figuring out who we can sell or target that to, we instead start with a community get to know that community's assets and needs and interests and then say “what's the project we can build together?”
Chris Barr: And this way of working requires a set of skills that are new to the museum space. At the museum in Santa Cruz, it meant that Nina had to hire differently.
Nina: We hired and we encourage organizations to hire people with community organizing backgrounds.
Chris Barr: And she says it’s not just about being able to work with other communities, it also about being committed to creating space for those folks. Rather than simply designing an experience, these staff members are creating processes and frameworks that help others be part of something.
Nina: And then we're also looking for people who are ready to spend more time being a space maker for others than themselves doing the creative work. And I think this is so hard in museums. You know, I started out as an exhibit designer and my sense of self-worth was rooted in what I had made. And what we encourage now with our Of By For All organizations, is this idea that “how can you shift where you get your sense of pride and self concept away from what you've made and instead feel proud and excited about the space you've made for others to make something beautiful together in your space?”
Chris: And beyond new roles, museums need to consider what communities are represented on their staff. Have they focused on what cultural vantage points they have at the table and how that can shape how they interact with communities?
Nina: These changes to board and staff are in of category it's about who is your organization representative of.
Chris: It’s no secret that museums have work to do to make their staff more reflective of their community. A recent report from the Mellon Foundation and the Association of Art Museum Directors shows that 80 percent of the top roles are still held by white people.
As a consultant focused on diversity, equity and inclusion in the museum space, Cecile Shellman has spent considerable amount of time thinking about these issues. And in order to shape the museum field, she believes we have to go beyond the demographics of our communities.
Cecile: The point is, that this is a social justice endeavor. There are opportunities that have been denied to people of color for too long. And in order to grow the field it may very well be that you may have a museum, as they sometimes are, in a very well-monied, you know very high end, say, neighborhood. And unfortunately perhaps there are maybe 2 percent of an African-American presence or you know negligible Latinx presence. But does that can't mean that you should only you know employ one point two people. You know it's ludicrous.
Chris: She believes this is a field-wide issue, and we need to deal with it as a field, not just as individual institutions.
Cecille: In order to grow the field and to mentor and shape and allow professionals of color to blossom and to have sustainability to ensure that they feel welcome and are included, you have to have a large number.
Chris: This isn’t the experience that Cecille had when she entered the museum field. Her experience was one where finding other people of color was rare, and also one where she encountered leadership that asked her to leave parts of her identity at home.
Cecille: There was a certain museum which I worked, and I would rather not state which, but in the employee handbook it stated that people should not wear their hair in Afrocentric styles and ethnic styles. And this was a museum that had more African-American presence than others, in terms of employees. And we were all just mortified. This is our personhood. And I think that inclusion is about affirming each other's personhood. And you know just recognizing that there isn't just one norm. Whiteness is not the norm.
Chris: And work around inclusion isn’t just about correcting for social wrongs. It also is about broadening our vantage points, getting out of silos and creating the conditions for creativity.
Cecille: So bringing in someone with an entirely different perspective and an entirely different genealogy, literally and figuratively. An entirely different way of seeing the world, of relating to the history and the connection with the art. You know, I think sometimes especially for people of color, for black people like myself, we bring an orality, a vitality that perhaps isn't shared among some other cultures, especially the dominant culture.
Chris: Museums help us understand the world. They use objects to provide context and build understanding of human experience. And right now they are going through changes, too. Changes that will help them see differently and make the stories that they share more reflective of the world outside their walls. And in doing so, building an understanding that human experience is not one-size-fits-all.
We’ve talked about how design, community organizing and staffing can help create welcoming spaces. We met up with Sina earlier in this episode, because he is a national expert in how technology can help us make museums more welcoming spaces.
Sina: I am an unapologetic and firm believer that technology is a massive force for positive change. And one of the reasons for that on a personal level is that it equalizes the playing field.
You know, me deploying code to a satellite in orbit is easier than finding the register, as I point behind myself, to where we got coffee. Right. And that's ridiculous to me. Right. That these completely complex and very complicated things, those things I can do, because of technology. But physical navigation of spaces or access to printed material, at least in a very detailed way, or looking around the art in the galleries here, that's a more difficult task.
Chris: And despite the opportunity that technology offers to reach more people, within the museum world, the number of bespoke solutions being deployed, means that sometimes the benefits of new technologies do not spread equally from institution to institution.
Sina:Whereas you fixed the accessibility on Wikipedia once and billions of people benefit. That's not necessarily true when you fix the accessibility on a digital interactive at this museum, it doesn't mean that the digital inactive anywhere else at any other museum, local or global, would would benefit from those changes. And that's a problem.
Chris: So Sina is trying to reach some economies of scale with his technology work. Through a partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, his firm has helped develop Coyote -- an open source system for including visual descriptions of objects, online and in museum spaces. And now any museum can use that technology to improve their offerings.
And this is the work that so many are doing. From Cecille’s consulting and advocacy to the work that Nina leads at Of, By, For All to help cultural institutions connect with their communities.
Nina: Here's the opportunity:
Chris: Nina Simon again.
Nina: in this country. There are thousands of museums that have public support. They exist on some level whether it's just in their mission statement or whether it's embedded into everything they do. They exist on some level to serve and engage the public. But as we've been discussing, so many of them only exist right now to serve and engage a very narrow slice of their communities. I see these facilities that have the power and the potential to be civic convening spaces, to be full of the life and creativity and energy of their communities.
Chris: These are institutions with power and resources. They have real estate, collections, staff and financial engines.
Nina: and if they pivoted and shared that power a little bit and turned their institution, instead of one that hoards power into one that is a generous platform for the creativity for the art of the community, I believe that it could change the way that communities come together and I believe it could ensure greater relevance and resilience of those institutions in the long term.
Chris: This is an enormous opportunity. And whether it be through the staff that we hire, the exhibitions that we display, the technology that we deploy, or the events that we host, the opportunity is now to make museums and cultural institutions of all stripes more welcoming. We can build spaces that are more inclusive and participatory, and by doing so make those spaces better for everyone.
Thanks for listening to On View.
This is a project of the Knight Foundation. Knight Foundation believes that great art connects people to place and to each other. You can learn more about our work at knightfoundation.org
On view is produced by Katie Fernilius.
And special thanks to Wilson Sayre for help editing and mixing this episode.
I’m Chris Barr. Find me on Twitter at @heychrisbarr. And again, thanks for listening.