Creating Cultural Contexts

Sheila Vidmar, Docent, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD and NDSC Director at Large  (June 2018)

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland sponsored a series of lectures entitled Creating Cultural Contexts. The first such talk, Museum Displays and Power Dynamics, featured Keonna Hendrick, a cultural strategist and educator who is currently Senior Museum Educator the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Docents were asked to attend this lecture in place of the usual weekly enrichment session, and study materials were provided to docents before the lecture. 

Ms. Hendrick asked her audience to address the intersections of power, racism, and cultural appropriation. She suggested principles for building racial and cultural equity in the museum setting, including: prioritize people over objects, focus on consequence over intention, engage in authentic listening, provide contextual information that considers power and identity, and acknowledge multiple narratives. She issued a call to action that resonates for docents: Identify one thing you can commit to doing to combat racial or cultural inequity in museums.

Docents were also invited to attend a "study day" following the lecture, with additional speakers and exercises designed to stimulate discussion among museum professionals on topics of race and cultural bias. Curators, conservators, educators and administrators were challenged to see the museum through the eyes of students, teachers and visitors of different races and cultures. At the conclusion of that day, participants were asked to reflect upon what was most urgent and important about the issues raised. The answers differed among individuals, mostly based on their roles at the museum, but all were thoughtful and invited further study.

Both the lecture and the study day stimulated intense reflection, some discomfort, and a lot of discussion among docents who participated. Interested docents met informally to react and develop suggestions for follow up among the entire docent corps. Fifteen suggestions were proposed for docents, from revising our "welcome" to including more diverse objects on our tours. That list of suggestions has been submitted to the Docent Executive Committee, and working groups have been formed to advance several of the suggestions over the summer.


Othello, by Pietro Calvi, c.1873, courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

We've only just begun, but the work feels important and urgent. We can do more to make sure that all visitors to the Walters feel welcome, represented and understood.


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