Applying DEI to Museum Collection Development — Part 2

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

November 23, 2022

In an earlier post, we introduced the topic Applying DEI to Museum Collection Development. In the post we reviewed the reparative and post-custodial approaches as they apply to evolving the collection development strategy. 

This post is part 2 in a two-part series and will outline challenges museum staff can face when engaging in the reparative and post-custodial models, and offer supportive strategies on how to make it through successfully.

Change is Hard 

The first challenge is “Change”. When moving forward with collection development changes, there can be a natural resistance. Change is uncomfortable, and the museum field isn’t known for our cutting-edge policy development. When the fear of change comes up, two main concerns will be articulated:

  • A fear of making collection and financial donors angry.
  • A fear that the recommended changes will be criticized and held up to internal and external scrutiny. 

Seek Professional Training from the Very Communities You Wish to Work With

The second main challenge is providing updated education to museum staff. For example, bringing in BIPOC-led Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training, trauma-informed process training, and competency training based on and provided by the communities the museum wishes to engage with. A further example of communities are: persons of varied abilities, those who are neurodivergent, those who are members of the Queer community, as well as those from different racial, ethnic, or religious communities.

This Can be a Period of Refinement

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to get it “right” right away. There’s going to be a natural period of trial and error as your team works to refine the strategies that work best for the museum. 

If repair to the collections and to the communities the museum wishes to welcome is the priority, then the next questions are:

  • How can the museum create a safe and welcoming space to previously excluded communities? 
  • How can the museum examine and acknowledge its past failures to these communities? 
  • What does it look like to make amends for past bad practices (and deeds) and to begin to establish trust with a previously mistreated community?
  • What does it look like to engage in conscious actions toward collection wholeness? 

Benefits of Updating Collection Development Policy

For those who need a list of benefits to help get museum staff and decision-makers on board, here is a list of benefits. It’s no secret that collecting practices of the 20th century were flawed. History, art, and culture in the Western Hemisphere are caucasian, heteronormative, upper class, and male dominant. In addition to striving for a more representative collection, here are the benefits to a refinement in collection development strategy:

  • It opens up funding opportunities.
  • It increases the potential donor pool in both collections and money.
  • It increases potential collection users.
  • It allows for greater multi-vocal storytelling.

Risks of Not Updating the Collection Development Policy

Now let’s think about the risks if no changes are made. These risks may be subtle, but that doesn’t diminish their danger. 

  • The collections remain dull and monotone.
  • People of the non-dominant culture remain unseen and unacknowledged.
  • It will be extremely difficult for the museum to make any meaningful connections with under-represented communities.
  • The museum staff morale is impacted and staff retention is difficult.
  • The museum collection fails to attract additional guests, members, and volunteers. 
  • The museum collection is viewed as outdated and no longer as attractive to tourists and long-term supporters. 

Conclusion

It can be overwhelming to know where to start when considering the application of DEI to collection development strategy. The good news is that we’re all learning as we go—and your very first step is to consider your options and give something (anything) a try.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and digitization and read more of Rachael’s blog posts here.

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