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Reclaiming Museums

Emily Kingsley's picture

Museums as they currently exist are sites of privilege and exclusion on a number of levels. As Carmen Papalia writes in his article, "A New Model for Access in the Museum," “museums aren't that accessible. Let's face it, they haven't been for a while.” Papalia speaks specifically to his experiences as a museum patron who is blind. “May I be so bold as to say that the visual sense is privileged when it comes to ones experience of the museum?,” he comments. Papalia explores the inflexible dependence of most museum on visual cues. These organizations have not, for the most part, taken seriously the task of expanding the types of sensory experiences their facilities can offer. This, however, is the starting point for the creative and forward-thinking work that Papalia is engaging with through his intentional and accessible art projects and installations. Through Social Practice, he pushes the boundaries of what we consider art and how we believe it should be experienced. 

In order to truly understand the question of museum (in)accessibility, however, it is necessary to layer on other forms of privilege that work together to make museums inaccessible for many people. Papalia opens up this conversation by touching the socioeconomic barriers posed by museums that charge entry fees. This is a symbolic and significant restriction that represents the ways in which money and power shape access to knowledge and information. 

Race is another identity marker that must be included in this analysis. Some people, like Darby English in his article for The Guardian, identify museums as “white spaces”—as institutions that operate primarily for the benefit of white patrons.

As Conner Gorden says in his article, “Whiteness, Accessibility and the Art Museum,” museums have become associated with whiteness in the artists that they exhibit, subjects they represent and audiences they cater to.”

As they currently exist, museums occupy the hypocritical position of spaces that technically “belong to everyone,” as Darby English says, yet in actuality only cater to the select crowd of economically privileged, white, able-bodied people.  

Papilia makes the danger of museum privilege clear through his statement that “if a museum exhibition, for whatever reason, limits the things that I can know, the museum, as an institution, is promoting inequality.” This perspective is a powerful one. To say that museums have the potential to promote inequality drastically changes the way we must view these institutions. They are not innocuous tourist spaces for learning and art, but are in fact crucial sites at which oppression is reproduced and privilege confirmed. Even so, by reclaiming and reimaging the museum, as Papilia has been working to do, these dynamics of inequality can be changed in radical ways so that museums become sites of empowerment and inclusion for all.