Being culturally situated is a state nothing can avoid, collection objects included.  Collection objects, even natural history specimens, are mediated by creators, curators, educators, amongst others. A dinosaur bone is excavated by a person, identified by a person, and reclassified by a person. The human existence, in other words, flavors the essence of every collection object.

The first step in recognizing bias is to accept that all aspects of museum work have inherent biases. There are many clear points of bias (above). Ignoring bias does not make these issues disappear; in fact, avoidance usually exacerbates and multiplies bias. Acquisitions are the often the result of inherent in-group bias when the academic interests nominate certain white, male artists as exemplary skewing the whole collection/ cannon. Databases seem cut and dry but are rife with potential biases.  For each category that has controlled vocabulary, a decision has been made. Databases that articulate male and female as the only choices for gender are excluding other genders. Interpretation is the front-facing function that needs to think particularly critically about bias.

 

 

Interpretation is like the end of the long line from the origin of the object to the visitor.  Interpretation is also the point where bias is particularly obvious. Content creation, ideally, starts with finding bridges between objects and visitors. There are many tools to form this bridge, from social media to catalog essays.  While each tool has a different reach and needs a different approach, in each instance the content creator chooses facets about the collection object to foreground. This choice-point is when many stories are edited out. When making this choice, however, thought is rarely given about who is being edited out and why.

How can bias be improved?

  1. Understand that all aspects of museum work have bias. Without accepting and understanding this, museum staff cannot address bias.
  2. In each area, reconsider conventional wisdom, long-held beliefs, and givens. Ask yourself “why” processes exists as they do.
  3. Seek help from others. Jaclyn Roessel gave a wonderful talk about her work about Indigenization of interpretation and process at #AAM2018, and this is a great example of how changing the balance of power can ameliorate biased systems.
  4. Invest time, energy, and trust. Museums are colonial institutions. Lip-service or surface bias treatment will not reform the foundations into equitable institutions. People need to go all in to make true change.
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2 thoughts on “Recognizing Bias in Interpretation and Content

  • May 17, 2018 at 10:59 am
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    Dear Seema:

    You, as bright as ever. 🙂 For years I reflect on what you propose in this post; I teach it in my courses on Registration and Cataloging of Museum Collections. However, I mention a small detail, which has great and open consequences:

    The interpretation would not be exactly “the end” of the long line from the origin to the visitor. I think it would be more like an “open” or “infinite” line, without ending in the visitor. This line is lengthened as the forms of power and appropriation are evolving. Normally interpretations are usually shown-a little bit-as tags or referential entries assigned to objects.

    The problem with cataloging and tags may be that those who assign them intend to freeze those senses in a past or present period, totally biased. I think that this “open line” of interpretations must be multidimensional or “infinite” as new categories of analysis arise in which intercultural and new disputes and additional meanings and meanings arise “in real time”.

    All this can and must coexist, when it is understood that cultural objects have been made by subjects capable of interpreting and meaning. In that sense one should not be “objective”, but legitimately “subjective”. Therefore, these objects (rather their meanings and meanings) are multifaceted and with many and increasing levels of meaning. I think that if we understand them that way … it would be an excellent way to leave behind the biases!

    All the exchanges with you are very enlightening. Thanks for your excellent post, dear Seema.

    Reply
  • May 17, 2018 at 1:06 pm
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    Seema, a very interesting and timely post. Nothing is neutral. Or, as I’ve written, despite what politicians and the media tell you, the world is not black or white. It’s filled with shades of gray. And that’s where I spend most of my time.

    Reply

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