Learnings and inspirations from the International Conference on the Inclusive Museum

By Claire Baker


Enslaved exhibition at the Freedom Center. Photo: Emily Trent

In September, a National Services Te Paerangi Professional Development Grant helped get me to Cincinnati, Ohio, to present my thesis on social inclusion in public art galleries. The International Conference on the Inclusive Museum took place at a human rights museum called the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Quite a mouthful, but named as such in celebration of the heroes who created the ‘Underground Railroad’, a secret voluntary network which enabled slaves to escape to freedom. The Freedom Center promotes human values and behaviours, such as courage, perseverance and cooperation, to move our society beyond all forms of contemporary slavery and prejudice. It’s an impressive remit.

“Speak to me in my language; and speak to my heart, not just from your heart.”

The tone for the conference was set by keynote speaker Tonya Matthews, CEO of the Michigan Science Centre. Matthews emphasised that we keep people out of our cultural organisations by communicating in ways that are foreign or unwelcoming to the people we want to include. Matthews reminded us of benchmarking criteria which museums (consciously or unconsciously) use on their communities, and the subsequent marginalising outcomes. “To improve equity, we can’t increase everyone’s income by the same amount. We also can’t have a standard measure by which to judge others. If we assess a fish based on how it can climb a tree, it will believe it is stupid.” Matthews urges museums to generate an environment where all visitors and potential users can contribute value.


CAC website – Doug takes you there

I was particularly inspired by the freshness of Regina Carswell Russo, Chief of Communications at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Regina told us a real life work story with an innovatively inclusive approach…

One day a man with cerebral palsy, who had been a frequent visitor of the Contemporary Arts Center, inquired about getting a job here. He tried several times, before it was suggested that he try the Communications Department. I felt that I should at least meet him, so we met. I told him I’d take his request back to my team and discuss the idea. The team came up with the concept ‘Doug takes you there’. As he moves around the galleries, Doug’s perspective is filmed and he narrates the journey. Doug, the man who so passionately wanted to contribute to the Contemporary Arts Center, now promotes us every day on our website.

I highly recommend watching these videos.


A corner of the Contemporary Arts Center’s UnMuseum

The UnMuseum is an interactive and educational art gallery. We invite you to learn through creating art and playing with artwork made by living artists.

—Contemporary Arts Center UnMuseum

The Contemporary Arts Center was designed to be an interactive, multi-generational space. Since the gallery opened in 2003, the sixth floor has been a dedicated space for children to physically interact with contemporary art. The art aims to challenge perceptions, and prompt children to wonder and delve deeper. Through this space, the Center has really acknowledged families and children as stakeholders, and has role modeled an innovation for other contemporary art galleries to consider.


Children’s Museum at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Photo: Emily Trent

When we visited the Cincinnati Museum Center the historic Union Terminal was being restored, but the Children’s Museum, in a newer part of the building, was still open. And it was busy! It was almost too intense for me, let alone a child on the autism spectrum. The Museum was aware of this issue, and recently launched sensory-friendly nights, aimed at children on the autism spectrum. These events require substantial preparation and numbers are strictly limited. The museum’s communications tools are adapted and the museum layout is modified so there is no sensory overload. A kit for children with autism is available at normal opening times, which includes social narratives and noise-cancelling headphones.

The Conference provided valuable learning from other museum professionals and researchers from the USA, Canada, Europe and Asia, and vastly broadened my understanding of the international museum sector. The tenth International Conference on the Inclusive Museum will be held at the University of Manchester and proposals are being accepted now. Find out more at: onmuseums.com/2017-conference

I would like to acknowledge the Invercargill Licensing Trust Foundation, National Services Te Paerangi and Invercargill Public Art Gallery for supporting me to attend and present at the Conference.


Starting my presentation with a brief history of Aotearoa NZ. Photo: Emily Trent