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Why inclusive language matters in the museum

Episode 84 Why Inclusive language matters with margaret middleton


I’m talking to Margaret Middleton today about what inclusive language is and why it matters. 

Margaret Middleton is an American independent exhibit designer and museum consultant currently based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. 

With a degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design and over 15 years of experience in the museum field, they work at the intersection of design and social justice.

We know museums aim to be welcoming places for everyone, but the ways museums communicate can unintentionally exclude and alienate visitors.

Likewise, when we’re working as museum teachers, guides and educators the words we choose when we communicate can hide unconscious biases and assumptions, especially about subjects like “family.”

10 years ago, Margaret created a tool called the Family Inclusive Language chart which helps us to choose words that avoid labelling and making assumptions about the identities and relationships between museum visitors. 

We discuss:

  • the ways you might use the Family Inclusive Language chart in the museum
  • how certain words, phrases and tenses can have a positive or negative effect on a group.
  • why choosing the right words is just as important as avoiding the wrong ones.
  • how we can be more intentional about the language we use and can train ourselves to not automatically default to words that may not be inclusive.

This chat will make you more aware of the language and the words you use when you’re with visitors in the museum. And you’ll gain useful insight into how thoughtful word choices have the power to create connections and include everyone. 


Claire: Hi Margaret. Welcome to the Art Engager Podcast.

Margaret: Hi. Thanks for having me..

Claire: So I’m delighted you can be here. Could you tell everyone listening where you are right now?

Margaret: I am joining you from my studio here in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

get to be in Belfast? I’m picking up on an accent…

Margaret: yes, we moved from the United States. I followed my partner here. She works at the Queens University of Belfast here, and we’ve been here for a couple of years now.

Claire: So can you tell us a bit about how you came to be doing what you’re doing now?

Margaret: So, I got my start in museums in the children’s museum field, and I was in-house as an exhibit designer for a while, and then I went independent and now I work for museums of all kinds as an exhibit designer and a museum consultant.

Claire: And are there specific values and principles that guide your work? It’s a question I ask quite frequently on this podcast.

I know it gives people pause for thought when they see that question in advance, but it’s nice to think about, you know, what are the values, what principles actually guide your work and your practice.

Margaret: My practice is guided by inclusion. that’s the sort of the unifying fine principle, inclusion and also learning through play, which I pick up from my children’s museum background, and that I’m particularly interested in making spaces and thinking about the experiences of people who have been historically marginalised by the museum.

Including queer people, people of colour, disabled people, children.

So I’d love today to focus, thinking about your values and your principles, on inclusive language and how we can be more intentional with the language and the words that we use. Perhaps even creating more awareness to choice and types of words and how we say things.

So on a very general level, , why does language, why does the language we use and the words we use, why does it matter?

Margaret: Well, language guides the visit; it can set the tone for the whole museum visit. It can be anything written, spoken, you know, it starts with maybe the website and all that wayfinding signage that you’re getting on the way into the museum.

The signage at the front desk, how you’re greeted at that front desk. The words that are spoken on the tour, the words that are said over the announcements.

Language is a really important part, and that’s not even, you know, that’s not even considering all of the language that’s on the labels themselves or in the interpretive, panels.

So, language is a huge part of the museum visit.

Claire: And I think also as educators. So, um, I think majority of people listening to this will work in heritage or museum education, perhaps also they might work in classrooms with students, but it’s about developing that mindfulness, being mindful of the language we use.

I think it’s more than about just avoiding certain words, maybe. It’s important that we avoid stigmatising or derogatory words, but it’s also important to choose the right words, isn’t it? I think that’s just as important as avoiding the wrong ones.

Margaret: Yeah. And I think that, Those of us who are working in that sort of inclusive language sphere hear this one a lot, that we’re like becoming the language police, that we’re taking words away somehow. And I think that’s a really telling hangup, because to me, I come from an, I went to art school.

So I come from this like user-centered design background. And when we approach problem solving in the design process, looking for limitations is actually something that can fuel creativity. You get more creative solutions when you look at constraints and limitations. So in my mind I’m not taking anything away with inclusive language.

I am opening up possibilities for using new language or using language in a different way. And I think that’s really exciting. I developed the Family Inclusive Language Chart as a museum worker who was on the, like that bottom rung, like I wasn’t in management. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of control over practice, but there was one thing that I could do in my own work that I didn’t require any permission from anybody. I didn’t have to get a grant or budget approval to change my own language. And for me, in that place where I didn’t feel like I had a lot of power, that felt really empowering.

Claire: And you mentioned the Family Inclusive Language Chart there.

I’d love to focus on that and perhaps you could talk us through what the chart is and how someone might use it.

Margaret: So the Family Inclusive Language Chart is a tool that I developed almost 10 years ago now. Wow. . And it’s a list of terms to avoid. And those terms include, and I guess I will back up and say, this guidance is all about people we don’t know yet.

So this is for interacting with somebody new who we don’t have a history with. So we don’t necessarily know who they are and what their relationships to one another are. And so some of those words that we’re avoiding are like identity words or relationship words like ‘mom’ or ‘dad’, ‘son’, ‘daughter’, ‘extended family’, ‘family resemblance’, and ‘members of a household’.

So those are these terms to avoid. And then for each of them, there’s an explanation of why. And some ideas for other things to say instead.

Claire: So some of those words that you listed in the first column, they might be problematic or alienating. Can you suggest ways that we can avoid using language that might alienate people in the museum?

Margaret: So that first one, ‘parents‘, ‘mum‘, ‘dad‘, ‘mum and dad‘. This particular one is inspired by typical children’s museum practice. I was taught when I came into the museum that the best way to refer to caregivers with children in the museum, were as ‘grownups‘ or ‘caregivers‘ or ‘adults’, whatever word felt right to me.

But the idea here is that it’s not accurate to all children, right? Like so, and, and the, I think the, the place where this becomes maybe the most crucial, and this is part of the training that you’ll often get in a children’s museum if you’re floor staff or, or a play guide, you’re going to hear like, what’s our protocol for reuniting a child and adult in the museum?

And when you’re approaching an unaccompanied child in the museum who may be in distress, it’s not helpful to ask where their mom is, because that may not be the person who they came to the museum with that day. They may not have a mom or she may not be there today. So the most accurate, the best way, to get at the question that we’re really asking, which is like, ‘Who are you here with?‘ ‘Where’s your grownup?‘ that’s the question that we would ask. And we’re able to ask the question that we really want to know. We get better information quicker and we’re able to, reunite that adult and child faster and, and with less distress.

Claire: Yeah, it’s a great example. And a great example of how we may make assumptions as well. I want to share an example of a time when I perhaps have used language that perhaps was not as inclusive as it could be. So I was recording a podcast and we were talking about family tours.

And throughout the interview that we had, we had a great chat, but we were talking about whether the adults would get involved and I, during the recording, used the word ‘parents‘ instead of ‘adults‘. I looked back at my notes afterwards and in my notes I’d said ‘ how do you get the adults involved?’

But at the spur of the moment when I was talking and obviously improvising, I used ‘parents‘. So I think this may be something that perhaps other people might also struggle with. How can we train ourselves not to do this automatic default to words that may not be so inclusive when we’re talking.

Margaret: I think that’s a, a good way to think about it as a default. And I think what I’ll usually recommend is one, don’t try to use a lot of different language. And what I mean by that is don’t have work language and home language. Just like pick a way that you’re going to speak in your whole life.

And again, we’re talking about people we don’t know yet. So as soon as somebody talks about their mom or their son or their grandfather, those are the words. I’m going to mirror their language. But I approach this in my whole life. So then I’m not switching back and forth between , ‘this is what I say at work’ and ‘this is what I say on the playground with my kids’.

So that consistency I think is really important. I think getting an accountability buddy is also really helpful. Like, Hey, let’s do this together. Every time you notice that I’ve made an assumption with my language help me out and I’ll do the same with you. And if there are any words that you struggle with saying I am thinking of like, like maybe a lot of words in the L G B T Q acronym, for example, or even just the acronym. There can be hangups around, you know, if these are not words that you’re used to saying, I recommend that people say them in the mirror to themselves. And it’s just a, a way to get comfortable, let your mouth, wrap around those words that you’re not necessarily used to saying and it’ll get easier.

Claire: Yeah. Some great suggestions there. I think. If we’re talking about educators, quite often we may use some of those techniques to think about improving other areas of our practice as well. So we may think about, um, I always advocate for people recording themselves, even if it’s just an, an audio recording of when they’re working because we assume we are working in a certain way, but are we really? Are we really asking all the questions we think we’re asking? Are we really phrasing things the way we want to phrase them? So recording can be a great way of actually holding up a mirror to your practice and thinking about, am I doing things the way I think that I’m doing them?

So thanks for those suggestions. So could you give another example perhaps from the chart and explain why this might be problematic in a museum visit?

Margaret: Well, the one that usually gets some laughs, but also that sense of recognition, is the family resemblance piece. And so that one is about avoiding making assumptions about how people are related based on how they look. And so it kind of goes both ways.

You may notice a family resemblance between people who you think are related, where there isn’t actually any resemblance.

This happened to me as a nanny, actually. People would say that the kids in my care looked like me, which they didn’t. But, but you know, I think we’re conditioned to look for these similar features in people. And there are so many families where caregivers and children, do not look alike.

And the idea that that they are not related, can be really, really frustrating for those families, that they’re not seen as a family, because they do not share that family resemblance that we’re sort of conditioned to look for.

So my advice in that case is just, keep all of those observations to yourself.

One of the most important pieces of this language, like I know sometimes when I’m talking about this, it sounds so nitty gritty, it sounds so fussy and small, but I know for myself, and there’s actually some really interesting research about this, that when we change our language or we’re really conscious of our language, it can change our perception. It changes what we can see.

So like, and I’ll use an example from my life. You know, my partner and I have been mistaken for all manner of relationships, when to us it is very clear that we are in a romantic relationship, that we are a couple. And so, we’ll have, like strangers who will assume that we are sisters or, I mean, we’ve had like mother, son, it runs the gamut. And like a lot of queer couples can relate to that. And in a lot of cases it’s funny.

But it gets old quick and it becomes a micro-aggression. So on a good day, we can laugh about it. But over time it all adds up and you get this sense that you’re invisible, that people don’t see you, and that you’re somehow less valid. I think that, because I approach the world thinking I have this queer experience and I think of families as, you know, this really expansive thing, I think I have an ability to see families where other people may not see them. You know, I’m able to see other queer couples in the world where maybe they pass right by straight people and nobody notices. But I think that awareness is really what this, the, where the, the language comes in.

Claire: Yeah. I, I really like that idea of thinking about language and being very precise with our words and careful with our words as a starting point and a starting point to really make a difference. And when you think about language and words, it can have such a positive effect and it can really put in motion steps towards a more equitable society.

So we’re, we are talking about small steps that could have a massive difference. I’m sure you must hear all the time people saying, ‘I wasn’t even aware. I didn’t even know that this language was exclusionary or, or could be seen as offensive’. And that reminds me a little bit of a conversation we had off air about the terms ‘guys’, when people use ‘guys’ when they greet people and some of the comments on a post I read about this were people saying ‘We weren’t even aware‘. ‘I don’t see it as a gendered term’. So what alternatives can we think of to terms such as ‘ladies and gentlemen‘, ‘boys and girls’, or ‘guys‘, when we’re greeting people? How can we have terms in our back pocket that we can pull out and use instead?

Margaret: I think the most important part of this to remember is that just because I’m okay being addressed in a certain way it doesn’t necessarily mean that my guests to the museum are going to feel the same way.

So regardless of whether I think ‘guys’ is inclusive or not, we know that a lot of people don’t feel included by that term, so we’re just not gonna use it. It’s so easy.

There’s a million other ways to talk, right? So one easy way. ‘Hi all‘. ‘Hello everyone’. ‘Welcome. Will everyone follow me?‘ Right? Like there’s, there’s a lot there.

These are, these are really simple. Nobody would even notice you were saying this, this wouldn’t, this would not come across as like, particularly inclusive language. We talked about some fun ways to get people in the mood for their museum visit.

I think it can be fun to say, you know, like, ‘hey, art lovers‘, or, you know, ‘art history explorers‘ or, or, you know, wherever you are, if you’re like at the, the science museum ‘come along, scientists, let’s learn some science together‘. Right? Like you can have fun with it. And the reason why we’re avoiding ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘boys and girls’, is that it’s not inclusive of non-binary people.

I personally, as a non-binary person myself, am not included in ‘ladies and gentlemen‘, ‘boys and girls‘. That’s not, none of those are for me. So there’s something nice about making room for everybody and all genders in our language. .

Claire: Yeah, totally agree. I was thinking then about language being so fluid and changing all the time and people struggling to know which terms are in use right now. I had this discussion in a museum I was in last week, and we were talking about certain art work that deals with certain themes and we wanted to know the most, most up-to-date terms. And luckily we had a network, well I had a network I could rely on, and ask for what is the most up-to-date terms that we can use.

But language does change and it’s important that we, particularly as educators or as museum professionals, we keep ourselves up to date and current with the words that we are using and we’re not, perhaps sticking to the tried and tested phrases that we’ve used for a long time.

Margaret: One thing to do is follow a lot of different people on social media, and read articles, subscribe to the latest journals.

I think, you know, Journal of Museum Education and Viewfinder, some of my favourites. And it’s helpful to know where to look, you don’t have to have all of the answers. We use this in an, in a museum tour as well, right? Like we remind other educators and ourselves like, we don’t have to have all of the answers it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know, but I know where to find out’ and that’s the most important piece.

So, you know, I think it’s really helpful to surround yourself with educators with a lot of different backgrounds. And maintain those relationships. So you’re not struggling that moment where you’re like, gosh, like, I’m stuck,I don’t know…you know, how are we talking about slavery, you know, these days? Like, why am I not up to date on this? You know? And you have some people or articles or journals that you can go to, to find those answers. That’s good educator skills, right there.

Claire: Absolutely. Yeah. Keeping yourself abreast of things, keeping informed, keeping up to date, and showing that curiosity and interest to want to keep developing your language and changing how you might. Say things and do things in the museum for sure. We’re speeding up to our last question, but I’d love for you to share how listeners can find out more about you, any resources or articles you’d like to share. Obviously the family inclusive Language guide, but Yeah. How can people find out more about you?. .

Margaret: You can follow me on Twitter @magmidd and my website I have a whole page of resources there, things you can download. I have articles that I’ve written and blog posts and things.

So there are a lot of different ways. I’ve tried to create a lot of different, different resources that are all free. And, you know, if you’re interested in learning more about children in the museum, there’s a book that I contributed a chapter to that is really great, Welcoming Young Children into the Museum.

And the reason why I’m so excited about that book in particular is that we focus on early childhood, which is a segment of the population who I personally really love. These are my people. And they are often not catered to in the museum, outside of, a few select programs. So this is a very comprehensive look at that. And yeah, it was a real honour to be included in that. ,

Claire: thank you for sharing. We’ll put links to everything in the show notes. Your resources page on your website is fantastic. I spent quite a long time going down a rabbit hole with all the articles and resources there. And we’ll put a link to the book as well.

Thank you so much for taking the time to come and talk to me today. Thanks for being on the Art Engager podcast.

Margaret: Thanks so much, Claire. This was fun.

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