In my recent #MuseumNext Talk, I spoke about trust. Trust isn’t something you offer blindly. It takes practice and effort. In museums, in order to include visitors into the trust equation, we need to up the game on our interpretation. We need to move from anonymous authority to informed communicator. This requires some major shifts in the way we think about objects. Often, curatorial practices invite singular narratives focused on exemptionalism. Life is anything but singular. Our objects, with their own lived-histories all, certainly cannot be understood with singular narratives. Flattened interpretation not only excludes visitors but also lets our collections down.
What’s the solution? Diversity isn’t just a problem in the people in museums, it’s also a huge problem in how we think of collections. We need to surface the plural histories that live within our collections. Each object has a long history with layers of stories, like an onion that we need to help people peel away.
Why? Well, the more stories that we expose about our collections, the more types of people who will feel connected to the collections. And, don’t worry. Visitors are okay–trust they will be okay with newer types of stories.
In a practical way, it means finding what is not in the interpretation we offer. We need to do this on the object level and on the exhibition level. Now, this is easier said than done for some institutions. We have been trained to streamline language and hone in on our theses. We are better academic powerhouses than cultural interpreters. So, this is in part about going back to the essentials like Why, How, Who, and What. You are looking for what is not there.
Ideally, this is a practice that you take up as a team, as each of you will see different lost elements.Tools like these seem juvenile, like school handouts, but something this simple can help you focus on your ideas and point you in the right direction.
But, if your team is not diverse, you might not even know what you are missing. So, then what? Obviously, diversify your team. But, what else? Find help: listen to talks; ask people outside the interpretation team; ask visitors; bring in consultants.