Reflections on the Inclusive Museums Conference

Reflections on the Inclusive Museum Conference

by Danielle Carter

The Inclusive Museum Conference was held this month from the 16th to the 19th of September at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The inaugural conference was held at the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Netherlands in 2008 prompted by the assassination of Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the controversy that followed. Van Gogh’s killer, a Dutch-Moroccan purportedly associated with a Dutch terrorist group called the Hofstad Network, attached a note to Theo van Gogh’s body that critiqued many Dutch politicians and their Jewish associates.

This prejudice sparked a lot of controversy in the Netherlands and worldwide. The Netherlands education sector reacted with the Dancing with Diversity initiative, which attempted to include a broader range of cultures and ethnicities in the heritage sector. This tension furthermore motivated the executive director of the Inclusive Museum Conference, Amareswar Galla, to found the conference and the associated Inclusive Museum Knowledge Community to encourage “strategies and have a dialogue that is inclusive for all people.” Furthermore, the goal of this knowledge community and these conferences is to help museums and museum practitioners to deal with post-colonial multiculturalism. 

The conference is hosted in a different city and country each year. This year, the conference was hosted by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Centre in Cincinnati, Ohio. The theme was urbanism, inclusion, and cultural freedoms with sub-themes of visitors, collections, and representations.

A broad range of topics were addressed at the conference, ranging from Dr. Louise McWhinnie’s presentation of how the country of the United States can be viewed as a museum in and of itself -with its hotel signs and billboards acting as museum objects within this museum space – to Sarah Graves’ presentation on volunteer motivation and retention in museums. The broader conversation throughout the conference, however, focused largely on the inclusion of various groups within the museum as well as how to include visitors of different abilities in the museum.

Regina Carswell Russo, Chief of Communications at the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati, explained how marketing and advertising can help to make a wide variety of people feel more comfortable and included into art and museum spaces. In other words, using advertising to represent a wide range of people removes a potential barrier to visiting these spaces. As Tonya Matthews also said during the conference, “When we have institutions that keep people like this out, we’re inadvertently holding ourselves back.” Tony Lawson and Jessica Urban of the Cincinnati Children’s Museum approached inclusiveness in the museum space from the perspective of making the museum more accessible for children on the autism spectrum who can often be irritated by the overwhelming sensorial experiences of interactive exhibitions at hands-on children’s museums.

The inclusion of different races and ethnicities in the museum was a hot topic at this conference – especially due to the location of the conference, the current state of racial relations in the United States, as well as the Underground Railroad Freedom Centre’s position at the historic intersection between free and slave states during the American Civil War.

The focus of the next Inclusive Museum Conference is Diaspora, Integration, and Museums and will be held the 15th to the 17th of September, 2017 at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. You can find more information, submit a proposal, or register for the 2017 conference here: