Museum collections frequently skew towards collecting art made by men – in 2019, an ArtNet survey showed only 11% of art in art museums was created by women, and suggested that efforts to increase the amount of women-made art in collections were not making significant change.
To create a more representative collection, museums may need to make bold collecting decisions. Deaccessions of valuable art created by men and cultivation of gifts by donors supportive of the goal to collect more art made by women are two significant methods museums can consider. Diversifying museum staff and respecting and embracing their ideas can also contribute to diversifying the collection. And there is one positive spin on the current undervaluation of women’s art in the art market: this makes it a great time for museums to acquire high-quality art by women artists at a more affordable cost for the museum.
Community collecting and shared authority are two important approaches museums can take to collect and interpret the history of women marginalized by their intersectional identities and LGBTQIA+ history. Community collecting is a method in which museums build relationships with communities and earn the trust of the community to take some of their meaningful objects into the museum’s care. Community collecting depends on an ongoing relationship of trust and accountability by the museum, and is defined by shared authority – a concept in which the authority to interpret and present knowledge on an artifact is held by both the museum and the community in which the artifact holds meaning.
History and culture museums should work to collect more artifacts that represent the lives and experiences of women and non-binary people. The New York State Museum demonstrates that all kinds of artifacts from daily life can tell stories about women’s experiences.
And the Museum of English Rural Life shows how a single artifact can reveal many stories about women’s history:
Keep intersectionality in mind when seeking artifacts to collect, recognizing that museums have long been oppressive spaces for many people whose intersecting identities have marginalized them in multiple ways. Thus, relationships of trust must be built with these communities before collecting can be done respectfully. Start by reaching out to community leaders or members who might already have a connection to your museum or its mission, always entering such conversations by asking what your institution can do for the community.
In addition, further researching current collections often reveals how your museum can tell gendered stories that have been overlooked in the past.
LGBTQIA+ experiences and artifacts have had to be kept secret for much of history. Collecting for LGBTQIA+ histories provides museums with an opportunity to build relationships with their communities and prioritize LGBTQIA+ voices in their collections to preserve their important stories. The Invisible Histories Project is one public history organization utilizing and innovating community collecting:
The collections policy of The History Project is a good example of how to institutionally structure and guide collecting specifically focused on LGBTQIA+ objects.
Another resource is LGBT museums, or museums that heavily feature LGBTQIA+ histories globally. The GLBT Museum in San Francisco, California was among the first in the field and remains a leader; the Schwules Museum in Berlin, Germany, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art in New York, New York are also good sources of information and examples to which your institution can look.
These institutions provide examples of ways in which your museum can begin collecting for LGBTQIA histories, or exhibit what has already been collected.