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  • Writer's pictureErin Salthouse

Museums welcoming to LGBTQ+ visitors and staff, an inside scoop. 

I am not aware of any programs specifically targeted at visitors who identify as both autistic and LGBTQ. However, as there is a high percentage of crossover in these communities, it is worth considering ways to support both groups when working with either one.

There are a number of guides for museums to be more welcoming to the LGBTQ community including an assessment tool provided by the American Alliance of Museums, The LGBTQ Welcoming Guidelines. However, despite these resources, some museums may need a shift in work culture, board priorities, and definition of audience before they are ready to enact public-facing change.

I recently met with a group of museum professional advocates and allies to discuss how we can make museums safer spaces for both LGBTQ visitors and staff.

One issue that came up repeatedly is that museums make change slowly and thoughtful small changes are better than a flashy, but empty symbols (ex, Just put up a rainbow flag for Pride) used as a marketing strategy.

For example, the New York City Department of Education has a program of training for schools which helps Educators know some strategies to support LGBTQ students. After completing this training, staff may use a "Out for Safe Schools" badge with a rainbow to signal they are a supportive adult. At some museums in the NYC area, these badges were handed out to interested Educators, and then interested internal staff as well who have little contact with the public, but wanted to show support for an inclusive work environment. A senior staffer noticed this badge on an educator during a tour and was excited to start taking more action. This set the stage for thoughtful small changes the museum could make to support its diverse visitors, starting with senior level sensitivity training. One change that came out of this was the addition of an all gender restroom sign. After some single occupancy accessible restrooms got refurbished, an all gender sign was added. Budgets are tight and spaces may be extremely difficult to expand, especially in a place like New York City. However, many museums have a family/accessible/ single stall that can also be labeled as all gender.

The main point of discussion, however, was forging relationships between part time staff and full time staff to create a safer workspace and to get the conversation started. A full time employee may have a better sense of what has been tried before, who might be open to new ideas, and can help identify a feasible action step. But a part timer also brings value to the table- they may work in a variety of institutions and can explain how other museums navigate certain issues, perhaps by providing training for all employees, offering pronoun buttons, or responding to visitor questions around LGBTQ topics.

In the same vein, visitors to museums can offer feedback on their experience and what elements made them feel welcome or not. Visitor data is extremely useful to museums, however these institutions ( at least in New York) often don’t have the opportunity to run evaluations of visitor engagement and attitudes.

This led to another point of discussion- What action steps are New York museum educators going to take this year? One idea in the works was initiating empathy based training to help museum professionals better understand the challenges and needs of visitors and staff who identify differently than the stereotypical hetero-normative expectation. A second idea was to try to get museum’s inherent competitiveness to support a large scale initiative such as doing something for LGBTQ STEM day, or providing training and rainbow badges, or getting pronoun buttons to each institution. And a third idea was to volunteer time and skill in order to conduct an evaluation on LGBTQ communities in the area and bring results as to why they do or do not visit certain institutions to senior museum staff.

If you know of an autism-friendly program at a museum, is it also LGBTQ friendly?

Of these ideas, which do you like best?

What changes could you inspire in your workplace to make it more inclusive for intersectional identities?

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