Applying DEI to Museum Collection Development — Part 1

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

October 19, 2022

As museums continue to integrate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives into the fabric of their programs it’s important to apply a DEI lens to existing collecting practices. 

In order to fully engage with DEI, museum staff must consider the role museums (as institutions) have historically held, and their role regarding the exclusion and harm communities have experienced. One major area where harm has typically been done is in the way museums have pursued collecting activities. When considering applying DEI to the museum collection development strategy there are two main approaches. This post is part 1 in a two-part series and will explore the reparative and post-custodial approaches.

The Reparative Approach

The reparative approach is a series of sustained actions that collectively work to make amends. While the approach informs collection strategy, it is equally important to center repair work in the activities that take place before and after the act of acquiring. A reparative approach should be considered for any and all communities that have a history of being exploited or marginalized by traditionally white and male-led institutions—including museums. As a result, the people of those communities don’t typically see themselves represented in the museum collections nor welcome in the museum spaces.

Here Are Key Repair Features to Keep in Mind

Repair work in this case calls for the museum to repair its relationship with previously marginalized communities in conjunction with evolving the collection strategy to be more inclusive of the communities within the collections. Key features to keep in mind are:

  • Repair is a long-term activity that requires consistency and authenticity.
  • Healthy relationships aren’t extractive nor transactional. 

Goal: A marker of success when undertaking repair work is that the community the museum is forging a relationship with feels safe, respected, and involved with the museum at the level they feel comfortable with.

Example: University of Maryland, Reparative Histories in University Archives is using an initiative approach to focus on acts of repair that result in more inclusive and historically accurate collections. 

The Post-Custodial Approach

Another approach to consider is the post-custodial approach. A post-custodial approach at its core is intended to empower the communities to collect, develop, and curate their own works. A post-custodial model makes sense in situations where there’s already strong community leadership and artistic, memory collecting, and/or curation activities are already underway. In this approach the museum is encouraged to take an anti-extractive stance (the opposite of colonization of collections) and support the community through offering resources—staff, expertise, space, supplies, education, tools, and funding. 

Here Are Key Post-Custodial Features to Keep in Mind

In the last couple of years, the post-custodial approach has received the critical reputation as a “failure”. It’s important to remember that:

  • This approach (as with reparative) is first and foremost about the relationship.
  • The approach cannot be extractive or exploitive. The emphasis is on empowering and providing resources to the community.
  • Post-custodial models only make sense when there is organic activity already taking place within the community.
  • The approach requires a permanent commitment from the museum. It will not be successful if the relationship has a termination date. 

Goal: A marker of success when applying the post-custodial approach is that the community is able to shore up its infrastructure and is empowered to participate in work with the museum. Members of the community feel respected and have the power in the relationship to direct activities and make decisions. 

Example: The University of Minnesota is providing infrastructure to create a rhizome—an ecosystem-type collaborative. This model emphasizes the development of partners’ archival capacity, and provides an opportunity for building a long-term relationship centered on trust. 

Conclusion

While each of these approaches have existed prior to the universality of DEI at museums, their application is still in an experimentation phase. Additionally, every museum staff, collection, and community will be different and will require a nuanced application of either approach. For Part 2 next week we’ll continue the discussion. I’ll review the challenges staff can face when attempting to apply DEI to the collection development strategy and offer supportive strategies.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. She has authored several titles published by Lucidea Press, with her newest to be released soon: Museum Digital Projects and You. Where to Begin? Rachael is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter.

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