Inclusion with no labelling

Sandra Peaty, Issue 116/12, p14, 01.12.2016
We must consciously undo excluding behaviours, to allow true inclusivity to flourish
The requirement to engage with historically “excluded” groups is clear in policy and through the conditions set out by major funding organisations. However, in the museum and gallery world, there remains a significant challenge in terms of the effective inclusion of all parts of the population.

Turning a policy’s good intentions into practice requires that the values underpinning it be lived out first and foremost in the actions of the sector’s staff and volunteers. One difficulty is understanding how we, as individuals, unknowingly contribute to the processes of exclusion.

Developing awareness of our own values and behaviours, and the effects that our day-to-day habits might have on fellow citizens, are preconditions for adjusting the sector’s culture towards greater inclusion and successful engagement. We must consciously undo excluding behaviours, to allow true inclusivity to flourish.

One important consideration is the stigmatising nature of labelling a person or a group of people based on a single dominant feature or factor in their lives (for example disability, health condition or social circumstance). While labelling has its place in society – for example, for clarity around allocating appropriate public services – there are also negative consequences of labelling arising from day-to-day social interaction.

Cultural organisations may be unwittingly reinforcing the negative aspects of “labelled” groups by working with them in a publicly naming way. Are we unthinkingly inviting patronising responses and “othering” judgments within our communities because our exclusive behaviours do not match our inclusive intentions? Worse, are our practices reinforcing stigma and exclusion?

Those entering a public space to participate in activities advertised for a particular group (for example, “learning disabled” or “young offenders”) are likely to immediately have a sense of separation and of being on an unequal footing with any other visitor. This can result in changed perceptions of self-identity which, in turn, affects confidence and self-esteem negatively.

Museums and galleries are not day centres or medical centres, but places that can stimulate, inspire and spark imagination. They can provide an opportunity for people to step out of their labelled world and be welcomed and included as any other visitor. Keeping a clear definition of the purpose of our organisations is important. Are we inviting people into a world that, all too often, still has perceptions of being for a certain sector of society?

It is clear that many museums and galleries have made great progress to include a more diverse audience.

Unfortunately, the nature of funding can force organisations to work with labelled and targeted audiences, making the desire to be more inclusive difficult to achieve.

All of this is challenging. So how have we tried to meet the challenge at Pallant House Gallery? Since 2002, our community programme has been underpinned by a set of core values, including “everyone is entitled to a creative life” and “to treat everyone fairly and equally”. One of the first questions posed in setting up the programme was: “How can we invite people with a range of support needs to step into the gallery and follow their art interests on an equal footing?”

Avoiding labelling was an early decision. A recent social-impact study confirms that a model of inclusive practice has been established. We are broadening perceptions of “disability” and “creativity”. There is strong evidence that the ethos, values and approach to working with people as unique creative individuals (rather than as subjects of a stigmatising label) not only benefits all involved in the programme, but enriches the gallery.

There is so much more to each of us than the labels attached to us. If we can work against the negative label and see the unique individual, then a world of possibilities opens up.

Sandra Peaty is the head of learning and community at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

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