Museum collections have the potential to engage visitors in multiple ways because of their power to connect visitors to the past, present, and future. Inclusive collections that incorporate diverse perspectives while also properly representing communities can generate a more inclusive, empathetic, and meaningful experience that promotes restorative justice.
What are some current gaps in your collection? What new collecting strategies have you considered adopting? Have you reached out to multiple communities in order to diversify your collection? Is your collection relevant to both the museum’s core constituency and new communities?
Collection policies should always adhere to the mission and vision statements. However, policies may change as those statements change. Collecting artifacts and works that broaden the collection will serve the museum’s entire community and restorative justice practices in general by resisting the erasure of communities of color and other marginalized communities. This applies to all cultural institutions, including art museums and history museums.
Carrying out active research into collection items that have not been studied before, or that have only been interpreted from the perspective of dominant groups (often wealthy, white, and/or male) allows museums to assess the hidden stories of marginalized communities that these objects might reveal. In “What can museums teach us about diversity?” Manuel Charr discusses why artwork and artifacts that are displayed within a museum should speak to a range of voices while being honest about their origins. Additionally, Randy Kennedy’s article for the New York Times in 2015, titled “Black Artists and the March into the Museum,” addresses a change in not just the collecting but also the exhibition practices of art historical institutions to highlight and canonize Black artists.
When a museum decides that it is going to address social justice and be inclusive when collecting work or objects, the result may be deaccessioning other objects in order to make space to incorporate new voices. In 2019, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) deaccessioned and began selling pieces by white male artists from its permanent collection while acquiring pieces created by artists of color and women. The director of the BMA at the time stated that this decision should, “. . . represent our collective goal to capture the innovations of a broad spectrum of artists with a continued and particular emphasis on those that have previously been under-represented in institutional collections.” Later that year, the BMA decided to pause the auction of pieces by white male artists due to intense controversy. Institutions should note that inclusive collecting can present challenges from stakeholders invested in previous collecting approaches, and so it requires taking time to develop support strategies that can prevent or defuse concerns.
Additionally, even if a museum is not planning new acquisitions, deaccessioning can help it be relevant. Communities are changing and it is necessary to let go of objects that do not reflect knowledge or experiences that relate to the current community. As the award-winning Active Collections Manifesto states, by deaccessioning artifacts that do not serve the current community, do not support the museum’s mission, or that came to the collection through illegal or unethical means, the museum emphasizes people over objects, and demonstrates its relevance.
Another way to address community needs through inclusive collecting is rapid response collecting. An important example of this kind of collecting involves the Black Lives Matter protests occurring within the United States. Preserving the history of these protests is something very powerful. However, museums must keep in mind that they should first focus on community engagement and building trust to lay the groundwork for rapid response collecting.
To incorporate inclusive collecting, a museum’s reliance on its existing funding alone may prove to be inadequate. The Terra Foundation offers grant programs to art institutions that require financial assistance in order to construct projects that present diverse and inclusive histories in American art and improve visitor experiences. Additionally, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) offers grants for a range of institutions and programs.
Have you recently conducted provenance research to ensure that all objects in the collection were obtained legally? Have you considered the repatriation of museum objects in your collection?
Repatriation is the process of restoring valuable items of cultural and spiritual heritage to the nations or indigenous communities where they originated. Before initiating the process of repatriation, provenance research must be completed in order to have a sense of what collection objects should or should not be repatriated. If objects came to your institution through illegal or unethical means, you should consider repatriation. The second step is outreach to the community or communities connected to those artifacts. If there is tension between an institution and communities of origin, repatriation can be a way to heal those relationships. The discussion in “Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts” includes more details about how museums may have acquired colonial objects and what they should do with them, offering guidelines for repatriation.
In the United States,, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires federally funded museums to return certain types of Native American artifacts and cultural items. These include sacred objects, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and human remains. A “Quick Guide to NAGPRA” by the National Park Services further explains the definition of NAGPRA and addresses common questions. Additionally, in the video below, archaeologist and curator Chip Colwell argues for the repatriation of Native artifacts to Native American communities and why museums need to proactively confront the colonial legacy of museum collecting.