April 9, 2018

Rethinking Museum Visits: Issues of Representation and Accessibility

Contributed by Aleksandra Grabowski

Longtime favorite destinations for school field trips and educational outings, museums play a critical role in an expansive, interactive curriculum. But looking between the marble columns, we uncover the thinly veiled, unsettling pasts of museums, along with their ongoing troublesome practices.

Marvel’s recent blockbuster Black Panther was seen by millions across the country, and a scene in it brought to light questions about how museums obtain the objects they display. It’s high time for the public and educators alike to actually discuss these questions, scrutinize traditional approaches to school museum visits and look at ways to increase representation and accessibility.

Representation and Accessibility: A Two-Pronged Approach

When considering the implications of past and present museum structures, multiple interconnected questions arise: Who gets to write about and portray history? What right do they have to do so? For whom is this history written? Who gets to access to this information? These questions bring up two areas of reflection worthy of discussion both among educators and students: museum representation and accessibility.

Representation: Decolonizing Museums

Who gets to tell the story of history? All too often, the answer to that question excludes the very people whose cultures are being put on display. Museums have long histories of displacement, exclusion and cultural theft that continue to this day. Many questions come to mind when discussing representation: How were these artifacts and art pieces initially acquired by the museum? Who told the story of these people, these cultures by designing the exhibits? Such historical and structural aspects must not be forgotten when considering the student experience at museums.

Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment


In her book on decolonizing museums, Native American author Amy Lonetree demonstrates how museums are “very painful sites for Native peoples, as they are intimately tied to the colonization process.” This process is made very clear through traditional museum structures in which dubiously acquired artifacts and rigid classification systems portray diverse, fluctuating Native cultures as static and homogenous. Native art becomes “natural history,” while Western art is displayed in pristine galleries. Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko describes museums as “temples of art and culture reflecting Europe as the ideal image” which “hold the spoils of colonization— artifacts and remains of Native people.” Not addressing these parts of museum structures during school field trips may lead to the misrepresentation of many cultures in the minds of young students.

Ameliorating these structures is a multifaceted process. It should start much before the museum even comes into play, through the incorporation of inclusive research practices such as community archaeology. Community archaeology involves coordinating and working with the locals whose ancestors are actually being studied, thus incorporating their voices and agency. Once at the museum level, similar pushes must be made to include the perspectives of those whose ancestors are being represented into actual exhibit design. Many museums are already taking steps towards addressing their structures through specialized exhibits and repatriation projects wherein cultural objects are given back to the communities they belong to.

Accessibility: Truly Opening Museum Doors

At the 2015 opening of the Whitney Museum in New York, former First Lady Michelle Obama stated that “there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.” In fact, Obama herself felt the same way growing up on the South Side of Chicago, saying, “I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.”

This demonstrates how socioeconomic status and race are also factors that hugely limit museum accessibility. Often, museums maintain structures in which history is told from the viewpoint of the white majority in a way that caters heavily to the white middle- and upper-class public. This occurs through elements like high entrance fees and a lack of affordable transportation, as well as having almost all-white administrative and design teams. As such, this lack of accessibility transcends simply price discrimination.

“Consider rethinking the way
in which museum field trips are conducted
as well as talked about in the classroom.”

Reports by the American Association of Museums found that core museum visitors today are composed of only 9 percent minority populations. Initiatives can be taken to lower entrance fees and widen the museum attendance of underrepresented communities. The High Museum in Atlanta succeeded in diversifying its attendees by taking various approaches, including changing marketing strategies, increasing docent diversity and lowering admissions.  

Physical accessibility is another large part of making museums more open to all. To address it, many museums have made pushes towards creating barrier-free experiences for certain populations, such as wheelchair users, but not so much for others, such as the visually impaired. The slogan of the disability rights movement — “nothing about us without us” — illustrates the policy-centered movements being made to develop more open museum structures. This involves not only ramps and elevators but also tactile exhibits with interactive elements for those with visual or auditory impairments.

Rethinking Field Trips

So now what? Museum structures play into colonial systems and are not as accessible as they may seem, but does this mean that school trips to museums are fundamentally wrong?

Absolutely not. Museum trips are still crucial opportunities for learning outside of the classroom and taking an experiential, hands-on approach to education. Research has found that students who attend museums at young ages are more likely to have higher achievement in multiple academic subjects. But consider rethinking the way in which museum field trips are conducted as well as talked about in the classroom.

  • Create a fund for low-income students whose families may not be able to afford field trip fees. There are plenty of fundraising ideas out there for educators looking to the increase the accessibility of school outings. Don’t let any of your students lose out on important out-of-class enrichment opportunities like museum trips.
  • Have a conversation with students about museums before going on trips. Consider linking them with units on colonial history to drive home the lasting effects of colonization, and break students away from the notion that what they learn in history has no bearing on the world of today. This can be incorporated into larger initiatives to decolonize the classroom.
  • Encourage students to challenge museum exhibits and structures if they have questions or feel uncomfortable with what they see. Lean into that discomfort by having follow-up class conversations after the outing to reflect upon the experience.
  • Provide information on local museum programs that allow low-income and physically/mentally impaired students access to the knowledge that museums have to offer. For example, many museums accept EBT cards for vastly reduced or even free admission as partners of the Museums for All initiative. Online resources like Euan’s Guide provide reviews of museums based on how disability-friendly they are.

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