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  • Writer's pictureErin Salthouse

Inclusion is Exclusive


At the AAM conference, I met an author who said this to me- “Inclusion is exclusive.” And I knew what she meant immediately. My colleague was perplexed and talked in circles the rest of the afternoon trying to dissuade me from this perspective. It seems counterintuitive! Isn’t inclusion the antithesis of exclusion? But we were not talking about broad and absolute concepts, instead, we were discussing the gritty logistics of practicing and growing inclusion in museums. So let me explain how Inclusion is Exclusive.

Or, the process of making a museum space more inclusive may require temporarily excluding some.

Imagine, for example, that a museum is trying to include visitors with autism. Well, the museum could put up an exhibition of autistic art or focused on autism as a topic- but by taking space in the exhibition, something else that might have been exhibited must be delayed, deprioritized, or cancelled. In order to focus on and highlight one topic, others must wait their turn.

What about programs, then?

Autistic adults and children often have sensory sensitivities so coming on a crowded, busy, loud day to an unfamiliar place is not a welcoming experience. Museums are often exclusionary places for this group of visitors. To adjust for this, many museums create scheduled opportunities for a small number of visitors with autism to come when the museum is closed to the public. This means the museum space is quiet, calm, and more accessible for the visitors with sensory overload but is necessarily closed to everyone else. Perhaps, after becoming familiar with the museum space, some will choose to return to the museum when it is open to the crowds, but without first creating a safer, more accessible entry point many will not attempt to go to a museum space which is designed for large crowds.

In order for a museum to actively welcome and include one group, others are temporarily excluded. What makes this process inclusive overall is which groups are chosen to be highlighted over others. If a museum chooses to prioritize able-bodied, wealthy white men, for example, it probably has the same model for exhibitions and lectures it has had since the early 20th century. Museums were never neutral. They are crafted by humans with human perspectives and bias. Museums in the west were primarily founded as colonial byproducts to entertain and curated to inform visitors of the superiority of white men in western countries. Although many museums have moved away from this model and work to tell the stories of the “everyman” there are still ways people are excluded. What hours is the museum open? How much does it cost to enter? And after decades of cultural stigma and prejudice, who is being actively invited to share authority with the museum? Which groups does a museum try to accommodate?

This is where I feel fine with the “exclusion” side of this adage. Exclusion is inherently bad, my colleague tried to tell me, in the same breathe complaining that wealthy patrons visiting her institution used a free scholarship style membership through visitors under 12 that could have gone to people who really need it. I suggested implementing a policy that might exclude people from this program based on income. Her response was that upper management was scared of angering these wealthy visitors, and worried about excluding people. The museum would not be seen to be acting “fairly” by offering free membership to some and not others.

I see Inclusion practice that requires some temporary exclusion as making space for those who have been excluded in other areas of our culture. It is inclusive to make time and space for a group which would otherwise not be able to come. It is creating an equitable experience for that group. Her situation with the unfiltered free membership seems to create an equal opportunity for anyone who visits the museum, but it is not equitable.

Equity vs Equality

These words may seem to mean the same thing, but they do not. This Everyday Feminism article goes into more detail. In short, equitable action aims to level the playing field- to give everyone a fair chance at success by matching their needs. Equal action aims to treat everyone exactly the same, which is sometimes conflated with the idea of “fairness” but which does not account for people having different advantages.

Visitors with autism are excluded from museums most of the time. By creating opportunities for museums to specifically welcome these visitors and working with autism advisory councils to change museum practice and policy in the long term, museums are being more equitable toward this group.

Some museum professionals get frustrated when others bring up accessibility. They see equitable action as unfair or as going overboard. Part of this comes from ignorance. Perhaps they have never struggled against cultural or physical barriers, or are unaware of the privilege they have. Perhaps making space for other groups and sharing authority is threatening to them. But most people will have some form of disability in their lifetime, whether from genetics, age, or accident, and currently 1 in 4 adults have some form of disability. Museums can, and should, do more to take equitable action, to be inclusive to many groups who have been historically excluded from museums and western culture.

So What? What can I do about it?

One reason I felt it was important to compile a list of autism programs across the US was so that this data could be transparent. So that people could look at which museums do and don’t make an effort to welcome neurodiverse visitors and so that people can pressure the museums which aren’t doing enough. How? Each grouping of states on the website is determined by the area’s Regional Museum Association, a group which convenes for conferences, holds museums to account, and pushes for change. I encourage you to reach out to your museum’s regional association and ask them about a visitor group you know could be better supported.

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