Mia has been collecting art for more than a century, from cultures around the world and across history. We now have more than 90,000 objects in our collection, and, like most museums, we have documented them in a computer database. We have noted what each item is, its history and characteristics, and what we believe makes it interesting or important.
But museums are changing. The world inside and outside museums is increasingly recognizing that museums are not neutral, thanks in no small part to LaTanya S. Autry, a curatorial fellow at the Yale University Art Gallery, and Mike Murawski, the director of education and public programs at the Portland Art Museum, who have pushed museums to engage in the important issues of our time and to acknowledge that they’ve always had a point of view—for better and for worse. Just as history is written by the winners, museums have largely been filled by the rich, powerful, and politically dominant. For Western museums, that means white men generally decided what deserves to be in a museum and continue to influence the definition of “blue chip” art. We are striving now to diversify our collection, to be more representative of the creative population outside our walls in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, gender. But how we document that diversity needs to change as well.
Museums have often been shy about documenting diversity. It can certainly show how un-diverse and lopsided our collections are (mostly fine art by named male artists; lots of indigenous art by unnamed, often-assumed-female artists). More recently, we have been shy both about assuming the “authoritative voice” we were so proud of in the past and in making a social mis-step by saying the wrong thing. This means that when folks want to know how many works by female/black/LGBTQ+/etc. artists we have in the collection, we can’t easily tell them.
The documentation of diversity by museums must be done thoughtfully, as part of a larger process. We need to confront our inherent biases regarding our collections and recognize that the so-called definitive histories we have been sharing are simply one point of view. We need to step aside and let the objects’ creators speak for themselves, which means museums giving up control and embracing artist self-identification. Mia is working through this process and finding it more complex than it sounds.
First, we need to ask creators what personal information they’re willing to share. That will require a clear explanation of what we want to know and, more importantly, why we want to know it. Shouldn’t the art speak for itself? Isn’t pinning down someone’s gender/ race/ ethnicity/ sexual orientation playing to the same old biases we’re trying to divest from our practice? Yes, quite possibly. But as we collectively make the transition from unconsciously biased to an open, non-racist/-sexist/-genderist society, it does help us identify the problem and work to balance the scales. And Mia’s been hearing from our audience that they want the state of our imbalance to be clearly visible. They want to query our collections for this information in part to hold us accountable.
Next we must recognize that not everyone will be willing to share personal information with us. We ought to respect artists’ wishes. But the pull of data and art history is strong here. If someone doesn’t want their information available to the public can we still capture it for our own use and understanding within Mia? Is that in any way justified? Are we strong enough to resist the lure of a complete data set in which all the boxes are ticked and we (believe) we know exactly where every artist sits on any spectrum? Or do artists in general really care if we assign them a gender, etc., based on what we know about them, not their personal choice? What is the impact on building a trusting relationship if we go ahead without their consent? Those questions remain to be answered.
How do we capture and manage this information? Like other museums, Mia’s collections database has always aimed to hold the “right” information: that single, authoritative voice on why an object deserves to be at Mia. Trying to capture a variety of voices—the artist, the art historian, the person on the street—is challenging, as is pinning down the terminology to use in a shifting language landscape. We want artists to describe themselves and that information to be discoverable, but the words they may use are still in flux. This is especially true when talking about gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. There is no longer a single set of “right” words. Fortunately, we are adapting our systems in new ways and have the help of projects like Homosaurus, an International Thesaurus of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Index Terms, to navigate language.
Addressing the challenges in documenting diversity through artists’ personal identity data is just part of the battle for more diverse collections. Museums like Mia are starting conversations and looking for ways to collaborate—with other museums, creators, and our audiences—and we have a long way to go to be the diverse organizations we want to become. Share your thoughts on how we can make it happen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to my colleagues Esther Callahan, Heather Everhart, and Heidi Raatz on Mia’s Gender and Ethnicity Working Group for their input and work on supporting diversity at Mia.
Top image: A view of the exhibition “Mapping Black Identities” at Mia, which challenges the notion of black identity as monolithic and instead focuses on the unique experiences of individual artists.