Creating a Cultural Glossary for Docents

Lisa Anne Sabatini, Docent, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (Spring 2022)

Ongoing efforts toward Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion both in society and in our cultural institutions focus our attention on the importance of language. The Docent Corps of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) was uncertain about what words we should say and how we should use them in this environment of changing expectations.  We needed help.  

In response, our Docent Council offered MERG (Museum Equity Reading Group) training between February and May of 2020. This MERG coursework offered docents fresh insights into areas of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. The program included University of Washington’s (UW) Diversity and Social Justice Glossary (2015) as a resource. Although this glossary was valuable as the initial source, we soon discovered that many of the terms and definitions were outdated for our purposes. We decided to curate our own Cultural Glossary - one that was contemporary, sensitive and responsive to the needs of our Docent Corps, our museum guests, and our Bay Area population as a whole.

Naturally, we wanted to learn new meanings of acronyms and words. What does “BIPOC” mean? How about the much bantered about “Woke”? And “Latinx”? Is “Race” even a valid identifier? How do we correctly designate gender via a pronoun?

How did we start?

To begin the process, Docent Council Chair, Tricia Hagey, and I formed a diverse group of 6 to 8 fellow docents - the Cultural Glossary Study Group. Here we are, smiling and happy to be doing our important work.

FAMSF Cultural Glossary Committee

We held weekly ZOOM meetings during which we discussed current vocabulary and the contradictory definitions circulating around many culturally sensitive terms. One of our Cultural Glossary group’s first tasks was to cull through UW’s glossary for words that we would include in our glossary, but with some amendments. For example, given current cultural discourse, the term “race” as defined in the (UW) Diversity and Social Justice Glossary, required some revision. We also updated some terms regarding gender issues. We discussed as a group, often heatedly, which terms and revised definitions were appropriate for our Cultural Glossary. Based on our collective research of disparate sources, we composed a definition for each term that we selected. We included the source(s) for each of definition, linked the URL, and if applicable, downloaded written documents pertinent to the term. We provided additional information and offered qualifications for terms that required them:
     a. For further information
     b. This term is controversial
     c. This term is problematic
     d. This term is currently under review

Our Cultural Glossary is available to docents both as a PDF and an online read-only AirTable version. Airtable is an easy-to use password protected spreadsheet platform. Multiple users can use this interactive platform. In addition to text, the platform can populate different types of information, such as URLS and word documents, in each word record. Airtable sorts information and creates categories of words. References and resources are documented with simple pull-down menus. A user may readily access additional tables of information.

Air Table Image 1

Docents continue to forward other sources for use in our glossary’s References/For Future Study section. They also send us as terms they have encountered that, due to their evolved definition or controversial representation by the media, justifiably belong in our glossary.

Air TAble Image 2

As language is always evolving, we need to groom our Cultural Glossary regularly. This is an important part of what we hope will be a future for our Cultural Glossary: a repository of terms that inspires vibrant and at times, controversial, discussions. We continue to meet on a quarterly basis.

For further information, please contact:  Lisa Anne Sabatini @ This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.