Politically Correct Tours

Judith Toman, Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC, - Facilitator

Sherry Avila, Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago, IL

Bev Biderman,  Art Gallery of Ontario & Textile Museum of Canada

Irene Bortolussi, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Nancy Duffy, Bruce Museum, Greenwich, CT

Mary Kuhl, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, CA

Pam Manske, Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, NB, - Recorder

Mary McQueen Reidy, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada

Lani Ord, San Antonio Museum of Art, TX

Susan Steinway, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA

Mary Ann Stergebs, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA


I. Docent participants raised the following as politically difficult topics raised by collections in a variety of institutions:

  • Homosexuality arising from museum exhibits,
  • Liberal vs. conservative political views having to do with war, neutrality as depicted in art,
  • Acceptable language to use to discuss and define aboriginal people, Native Americans/Indians, etc.,
  • How to clarify what were terms in use in past times vs. current nomenclature,
  • Opposition from related community to terms museum chooses to use, i.e. Islamic community opposition to “magic” squares in textile work’s title,
  • Cities and communities have different tolerance for what is politically correct,
  • Some museums have become “neutered” ex. Can’t talk about Jesus, with respect to a piece of religious art related to Christian tradition. Can talk about Greek gods, but not Christian except to say the word “God” is okay. Does this “sanitize” language?
  • We have a hard time knowing what terminology is correct, this may differ based on regional location,
  • There is a general sense of not wanted to offend visitors.
  • Sometimes details we discuss during tours, which are true stories, are not considered to be politically correct topics of discussion, i.e. suicide, adoption/family issues.
  • Naked vs. nude.
  • Self-Censoring: how staff and docents don’t talk negatively about art within collection itself
  • We discussed not talking about family members who seem missing from works of art, ex. “Where is the father here?”


II. Summary of issues that might be considered politically sensitive:

  • religion, gender, race and color,
  • race specific exhibits,
  • terms that once worked may not now, i.e. “monkey-faced”, “squaw”, “papoose”, have become incorrect due to current sensitivities, Babar and talk about colonialist Africa, “Little Black Sambo”.
  • What problems exist with “adult-only” areas?


III. Solutions:

  • Sometimes guards censor by keeping individuals out of certain exhibits, ex: not allowing children into an area where nudes are displayed.
  • Docents and exhibits should be respectful of audiences and visitors, trying to be positive and using value judgments and common sense in dealing with perceived sensitive issues.
  • Ask questions so docents are not saying “politically incorrect” things.
  • If others say things that are politically incorrect we should rephrase in language more sensitive and respectful to others.


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