Inclusivity starts at home

Saw the Museumnext Indianapolis call for papers — the theme is ‘inclusivity’. I thought about all the usual suspects on this topic at conferences in the past and then tried to recall what had frustrated me about them. And it was that they were often inclusive projects being discussed, not inclusive cultures leading to projects/products. The difference being that when the project ends, the inclusivity ends — but culture is always including. So, stand up and be counted — what did I have to contribute on this?

Two seemingly unrelated start points popped into view.

In my second week at Museum Victoria, there was an event to mark the retirement of a long-serving colleague. I’d not met her, and this was two hours of tea, cake, gifts and speeches. I’d just arrived, wanted to get some work done and start delivering for my boss — so why would i take two hours out of my day for someone i didn’t know? A colleague was horrified; ‘You have to come. In time you will see why. I can see it doesn’t make sense to you but you must trust me on this.’

The next week, I put a proposal to the Executive — and the first question I got was ‘who did you talk to in developing this?’ I was genuinely stunned. From my UK experience, i was expecting questions about strategic fit, data, costs, risks, benefits… But no. ‘Who did you have a chat with?’ was what I heard.

I had landed in an organisation that actively maintains a collegiate culture — in which farewell is as important as welcome, and is an opportunity for social norms of unhierarchical togetherness to be expressed and maintained.

The collegiate culture acts as a fertile soil in which museum practice can thrive. Museum Victoria doesn’t rely on evidence in the same way as museums in the UK. Rather, the hiring and empowering of skilled individuals, combined with cultural practices that make consultation the default, make the collective opinion a near-perfect simalcrum of evidenced reality — or is able to temper and contextualise the data with greater subtlety than I’ve experienced before. And this really benefits our audience work.

Within this museum’s culture, it is completely ordinary to assume that someone ‘other’ could make ‘my/our’ work stronger. When exhibition teams are putting such effort into including the, say, Finance team, it is actually no extra step to include, say, a youth project, a Kindergarten for poverty-line parents, a non-mainstream community. When the tent is already big, bringing in a few more isn’t troublesome. And because the CEO and divisional directors routinely ask ‘who have you spoken to?’ it is simple and obvious for that culture to extend to asking ‘what are the community views about this?’ Once it is routine for that question to be asked, there is a cultural enforcement of inclusivity of diverse perspectives.

And we can easily work with other agencies. Others have written about our work with Vic Health through our Talking difference program, but my point is how straightforward it was to dovetail our objectives around identity and migrant communities with a Health agency’s objectives around reducing incidence of mental illness. Welcoming another organisation hardly feels different to working with a different department within the museum.

The First Peoples exhibition at Melbourne Museum, winner of the AAM’s best Exhibition award in 2014, was created by extending this collegiate and inclusive approach to the Aboriginal community of Victoria. Where a different organisation may have looked to co-create, we handed over authority completely to the Yulendj group to shape the story — their story. We did not seek their input into our curators’ approach to display, but rather by placing our exhibition-making ‘machine’ into their hands.

The above examples didn’t happen because someone advocated for inclusion, they happened because inclusion is simply ordinary. They spring from an consciously maintained culture — one that drags the new, naive British head of exhibitions to the farewell of a retiring education officer in order that he might learn through participation that participation is how we do things here.

Flowers don’t grow because we demand of the seeds that they grow, or put a policy on flower-growth in place. They grow because the conditions enable them to — the nutritious soil, the warmth of the sun. By actively attending to our culture, we create the fertile ground in which inclusivity can bloom.