RK&A BLOG

Improving Our Museum Labels Through A Harm Reduction Lens: Part 1

It’s always a pleasure to share this page with our friends and colleagues in museums.  Today we’re delighted to share the first post in a new four-part series by Rachel Nicholson from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (located in Kansas City, MO).  Every two weeks throughout April and May, Rachel will highlight her team’s efforts to rewrite the Nelson-Atkins’ permanent collection gallery labels through a harm reduction lens. 

Her first post breaks down what is harm reduction and what motivated the Nelson Atkins’ team to do this critical work.

We’d love for you to share Rachel’s post widely.  Sharing examples of museums doing the hard work to address systemic biases is one small step we can all take towards creating a more equitable world.

 

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic and the amplified voice of the Black Lives Matter movement have revealed the fragility of cultural institutions and that fragility has made us question our systems. As museums, we are confronting questions about our historical practices and how we can ensure that our institutions operate from a place of racial justice. These conversations are already hard, and become even harder when we are all working from home and unable to gather or work in-person.

For the Interpretation Team at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which consists of myself, Ariana Chaivaranon, and Jocelyn Edens, our work is built around creating experiences in the galleries to help people connect with works of art. When describing our work to a friend or family, I like to say we work on anything that helps a visitor connect with or understand what is on display at the museum. I often cite object labels and in-gallery text as a major example of our work.

When COVID-19 hit, the Nelson-Atkins closed from April to September and budgets were dramatically reduced. Without our usual focus on special exhibitions and creating new content, we had the space to rethink our most widely used (and most inexpensive) interpretative tool. With a renewed call for museums to focus on racial equity, we decided to examine our labels through the lens of reducing harm to people who have been historically underserved by our museum. Our hope was to take the time we were closed to re-examine some of our most basic practices and thus be better able to serve our visitors moving forward.

Image of the exterior of the Nelson-Atkins. There is a large sculpture of a birdie (badminton) in the foreground on a green lawn, with the art museum building in the background.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO.

What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction most often refers to public health policies designed to lessen the negative social and/or physical consequences associated with human behaviors. A quick Google search will yield results often about drug use or sexual activity.

So what place does harm reduction have in art museum labels?

The philosophy underlying harm reduction is the idea that when faced with a set of circumstances, we should attempt to move forward in a way that does the least amount of harm in the world. In museums, rather than simply aiming to “do good,” harm reduction requires us to first acknowledge the context in which our institutions were built and their often-exclusionary histories and colonial collecting practices. When faced with this history, we as museum professionals have a responsibility to make choices moving forward that do the least harm to people.

The Project—Applying Harm Reduction to the Nelson-Atkins’ Labels

In the context of interpretative texts, like museum labels, operating from a place of harm reduction means recognizing that language has the power to exclude, dehumanize, and uphold a system of power. At the Nelson-Atkins, many of our permanent collection labels have been on the walls for decades. Language in these labels is often outdated and, beyond that, may not reflect the inclusive ideals and principles we aim for in our interpretation.

Many institutions have taken similar steps to update language in their galleries. Last year, the Amsterdam Museum removed “Dutch Golden Age” from their galleries and the Harvard Art Museums reexamined how they describe known slaveholder Nicolas Boylston in the wall label accompanying his portrait. Both of these projects come out of a decolonizing and racial equity framework and are excellent examples of why we need to pay attention to the language used in our galleries.

The calls for museums to do more that we have heard throughout the summer, however, pushed us to think beyond updating individual, outdated labels at the Nelson-Atkins. We wanted to take the time to build a common understanding of harm, what harm our current labels are causing to people and how we might reduce it for visitors. This required extended conversations with our colleagues in Curatorial and across the museum. From this starting point of acknowledging how visitors experience labels and works of art, we are also able to rethink and reimagine what kinds of stories we might tell, whose voices we might include, and what kinds of more inclusive experiences we can create for visitors moving forward.

Through this series of blog posts, I’ll trace our ongoing process of updating our most widely used interpretative tool—labels—and develop a new understanding of the stories we tell and experiences we invite with works of art.

In the next post, I’ll share how we utilized physical distancing to our advantage to facilitate more transparent, horizontal communication between colleagues across levels of seniority, from young fellows to our museum’s Director.

 

About the Author

Rachel Nicholson is the Director, Interpretation, Evaluation & Visitor Research at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.  You can reach her at rnicholson@nelson-atkins.org.

 

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